at Centre East Studio Theatre
A pair of losers carefully plan a crime by acting it out in private, with one of the criminals taking the intended victim’s role; but when the time comes to carry out the deed, the criminals fail miserably and turn instead on each other. Is this a new play by David Mamet, or by an imitator of the author of American Buffalo?
Two sisters, locked in a vise of mutual love and hatred, spend their hours alone in a bizarre, ultimately deadly game of make-believe, alternating between the dominant and submissive roles of mistress and servant, lapsing in and out of rhetorical flights of melodramatic fantasy. Is it a stage version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or some exercise in gothic horror inspired by that Bette Davis-Joan Crawford cult classic?
The play is The Maids, Jean Genet’s 1947 one-act; the above descriptions are just two of many levels on which this influential, endlessly fascinating work operates. Here’s another: Two actors find themselves cast in a play in which they play women. Their job is to create convincing characters–to make an audience believe, at least for the play’s duration, that they are the people they are playing. But no effort has been made to disguise the performers’ true gender, so their impersonations of two young women are absolutely unconvincing. Night after night these men must go out on the stage, only to face the shame and frustration of repeated failure in front of an audience.
When he wrote The Maids on commission from the great French director Louis Jouvet, Jean Genet wanted the play’s three roles–the sisters Claire and Solange, the maids of the title, and Madame, the aristocratic lady they serve–to be played by boys. Jouvet, however, insisted on using actresses for his premiere production, and since then The Maids has rarely been seen as its author intended. (A well-known movie version starred Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, and Vivien Merchant.) Yet, as the keenly intelligent production directed by Greg Cesear for his company Cesear’s Forum makes clear, having the women’s parts played in drag is integral to satisfying not only Genet’s fascination with the illusion of theater but also the play’s–and its author’s–obsession with humiliation and failure.
The plot of The Maids is minimal: Claire and Solange ritually rehearse their intended murder of Madame while she is out of the house; Claire takes the role of Madame, and Solange assumes the identity of Claire. A phone call informs the maids that Monsieur, Madame’s lover–falsely arrested for vague crimes on the strength of an anonymous letter to the police that was in fact written by Claire–has been released on bail. Madame returns, and Claire offers her a cup of poisoned tea; but when Claire mentions that Monsieur is out of jail, Madame rushes out of the house without drinking the brew. Solange and Claire return to their ritual, and Claire drinks the poison herself. These simple incidents–suggested to Genet by a case reported in the newspapers–are the hook on which the writer hangs the play’s real drama.
To criticize the story of The Maids as banal is like dismissing communion as a fast meal. Indeed, Genet deliberately sought to invoke the sense of ceremony expressed in (as he wrote to his publisher) “the sacrifice of the Mass”; the elaborate imagery of his characters’ words (“My spurt of saliva is my spray of diamonds,” “Her carnation is the red of our shame,” “You crush me with your attentions and your humbleness,” “She loves us . . . like her bidet”), the endless shifting of roles among the women, and the patent artificiality of the female impersonation are the poetic means by which the playwright explores his themes of rebellion and submission, dominance and dependence, pleasure and pain, good and evil, humiliation and exaltation, the impulse to praise beauty and the impulse to destroy it.
Straying selectively from Genet’s original plan, Cesear has cast males as Solange and Claire but a woman as Madame. The faultiness of the men’s effort at female impersonation is underlined by the presence of a real woman on the stage; that highlights the maids’ ludicrous yet lethal desire to become Madame as well as to kill her. Significantly, the maids are played not by immature boys but by handsome, solidly built young men; and Cesear does not shy away from either the erotic appeal or the comic incongruity inherent in having Claire’s white slip filled out by a well-developed masculine chest and shoulders, or Solange’s starched uniform draped over a gangly male form. Still, for all their unmistakable maleness, Gregory Grene and Daniel Logan are well fitted to their roles. The tall, slim Logan expresses the scheming Solange’s corrupt criminality through a pair of burning Bette Davis eyes and a haughty intensity to match; opposite Logan’s compelling presence, the smaller, more muscular Grene recalls Joan Crawford as the self-sacrificing would-be saint, Claire. (In his wig and weirdly glossy makeup, Grene looks like a male department-store dummy perversely assigned to the ladies’-wear section; it’s a wonderful effect.)
The actors, who seemed somewhat underrehearsed opening weekend, have yet to develop the deep connections of sisterly intimacy, sexual electricity, and psychic duality that bind the maids; but given the clear sensitivity they and their director display toward the script’s implications, that should emerge over the play’s run. JoAnn Tahtinen, though not the wispy young beauty I think Genet envisioned Madame to be, is right on the mark as the instinctively arrogant, cuttingly genteel lady who can toss off girlish gossip or cutting criticism with the same light touch. Mark Evancho’s bedroom set–with black walls and white curtains, black furniture and a white carpet–is a perfect dreamscape for Genet’s fantasy–billowing, brittle, beautiful, and endlessly elusive.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.