Credit: Joe Mazza

Solange and Claire are sisters and servants, attending to the needs of the
young woman known to them as “Madame.” They’re also nuts. What’s made them
that way is an interesting question, the answer to which may or may not be
embedded in the gambits they act out during The Maids, Jean
Genet’s 1947 succes de scandale, getting a less than successful revival now
at the Artistic Home.

When Madame is away, the sisters raid her boudoir. One becomes Madame
herself, dressing up in her clothes, jewelry, and makeup. The other retains
her usual work livery. Then they perform their private play about a haughty
mistress and her sado-masochistic maid. Insinuations are made, orders
given, insults hurled, slaps tendered. There’s cruelty and groveling and
not a little erotic heat. At the height of the proceedings, the maid—who
may be Solange or Claire or Claire in the role of Solange or Solange in the
role of Claire—kills “Madame.” Or would, if time allowed. The real Madame
always seems to return just as they’re about to reach the big climax.

Solange and Claire’s game/ceremony/tryst looks at first like an amusingly
sick way to blow off some working-class steam. But that’s not how things
turn out. Carried away by the forces they’ve let loose within
themselves—their anger, their fantasies, their desire to punish and be
punished—the sisters have written anonymously to the police, denouncing
Madame’s husband for crimes Genet never enumerates. When this flimsy plan
falls apart, they know the jig is up and the game takes on a mortal
urgency.

Genet based The Maids on a notorious 1933 case concerning a pair
of French sister housemaids, Christine and Léa Papin, who murdered their
employer’s wife and daughter. The crime was attributed to the influence of
strong-minded Christine over susceptible Léa, and some of that dynamic
survives in Claire and Solange. But Genet takes their relationship well
beyond sibling issues, making their constantly changing dialectic of power
and subjugation vibrate with social, economic, artistic, and sexual
implications—not to say implications for the construction of identity and
of reality itself. In his introduction to the published version of the
script, Jean-Paul Sartre says Genet sets “being and appearance” spinning so
that the discrete categories we depend on blur into one another. “Genet
constructs such whirligigs by the hundred,” Sartre writes. “They become his
favorite mode of thinking.”

Sartre goes on to suggest that Genet wanted to make a whirligig of gender,
too, citing a remark from his Our Lady of the Flowers: “If I were
to have a play put on in which women had roles, I would demand that these
roles be played by adolescent boys, and I would bring this to the attention
of the spectators by means of a placard which would remain nailed to the
right or left of the sets during the entire performance.” And, indeed,
though its world-premiere cast consisted of three women (Sartre says it was
a concession to the director), there have been plenty of Maids
with men in various styles and degrees of drag.

For his Artistic Home staging, Michael Conroy has chosen to mix things up
to the extent that Madame is played by Brookelyn Hebert, who presents
unambiguously as a woman, while Claire and Solange are embodied by drag
artists Patience Darling and Hinkypunk respectively. What we see for most
of the show’s 90-minute running time are two lean, tallish people in
extravagant face makeup transitioning back and forth between ball gowns and
the tastefully kinkified maid uniforms created by costume designer Zachery
Wagner.

Claire and Solange’s mask-like look has important uses. With a single
stroke it emphasizes the surreality of their dress-up game, the hermetic
nature of their relationship, their outsider status in the world—and, in
the presence of Hebert’s Madame, both the hopelessness of trying to emulate
her and the comic irony that at a certain level of their consciousness
they’re way more fabulous than she is.

Trouble is, the makeup has to stay on for the duration, which means that
points made in the first few minutes become the sum total of what we take
away from the entire experience. Provocations offered at the start are
repeated in paler and paler iterations. Abetted by some limited, tentative
performances, Conroy’s bold concept backfires, and the whirligig stops.

Well, maybe not entirely. There’s a moment late in the play when
Hinkypunk’s Solange gets a glimpse beyond her folie a deux, recognizes the
inevitability of what’s to come next for her and her little sister, and
gives in to it. For that moment we’re entirely beyond avant-garde gestures
of the past or present, looking at human pain.   v