at Center Theater Studio
Early in the performance, long before the metal folding chair I was sitting on made the one lasting impression of the evening, one performer asked of the other, “Are you offering me the dreary exile of your imagination?” The question hung there in the limbo of dramatic irony, and then poised upon my own lips like a silent prayer. And each subsequent moment, insofar as this production had anything amounting to a “moment,” shouted yes, yes, yes!
This production is so incoherent that I was driven to reference works to regain some notion of what this play might possibly have intended. Jean Genet’s own introduction to The Maids is of no help whatsoever. (“I thus hoped also to obtain the abolition of characters … and to replace them by symbols as far removed as possible, at first, from what they are to signify, and yet still attached to it in order to link by this sole means author and audience; in short, to make the characters on the stage merely the metaphors of what they were to represent.”) Perhaps that’s why a number of other intellectuals, ranging from the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to theater scholar Robert Brustein, have undertaken to explain Genet’s work to the public. It makes for some very dry reading, so allow me to boil it down to a few probably reductive and highly personal insights.
I think Genet spent too much time in solitary confinement. (In fact, a good portion of his life was served as hard time.) He’s obsessed with fantasy. For Genet, self-knowledge and an understanding of one’s place in the world is a matter of illusion. And if you penetrated that illusion, it would only give way to another. As for human relationships, it would be safe to speculate that Genet was a bondage freak. It’s easy to see Genet’s fascination with love-hate, master-slave sadomasochistic alliances, especially in The Maids. What’s more, Genet exhibits a sense of play in depicting such relationships, by periodically reversing roles, so that the dominant character becomes submissive, and vice versa. To make an obscure point clearer–at the risk of dreadfully oversimplifying Genet’s complex approach to drama–I’d say that The Maids is the psychodramatic equivalent of a Saturday night in an S and M rodeo bar.
The basic plot goes like this. The maids are Claire and Solange, and while the Madame is out, they play a little game. As the play opens, Claire plays the Madame, and Solange plays Claire. They abuse each other in subtle ways, building the fantasy to a climax, which is consummated in the murder of the Madame. However, the fantasy never reaches that climax. Claire and Solange waste too much time with the foreplay, and the Madame returns before the murder scene can be enacted. Then Claire and Solange, so unsatisfied, must resume their lives as maids, which they simply can no longer tolerate. Trapped in this hall of mirrors where reality and illusion have no distinction, since every aspect of their lives is a matter of dissembling, Claire and Solange approach the breaking point. So Claire serves the Madame a cup of tea with ten phenobarbitals in it. But the Madame doesn’t drink it. She has to run to meet her lover, which leaves Claire and Solange alone again to play their game. This time Claire insists on playing the Madame again, and she makes Solange (who plays Claire) serve her the poisoned tea.
I’ve skipped over a few details here, a subplot, a dramatic nuance or two, but you get the idea. The thing is, I don’t think you’d get the idea, or even an iota of an idea, if you were sitting in the audience of the current production. Because I had no understanding of what these actors were doing, or even what they thought they were doing. I don’t think they knew themselves. After a while, it didn’t seem to matter which lines belonged to what character. And when the actors wished to make a point, but were unsure as to what that point was, they’d shout. There’s a lot of shouting in this show, and in a small room at that. The thought even crossed my mind that this sort of shouting is the hallmark of a whole school of militantly amateur performance. The school of unfocused energy. When in doubt, shout.
The biggest problem with the acting is the muddled relationship between Claire and Solange. These are challenging roles, and the dynamics between these two characters have to be crystal clear or the sense of the play will be lost, which it is. Diane White’s performance as Claire is, I don’t know, alternately dreamy and mechanically affected. Sometimes her accent sounds vaguely Texan. Go figure. Bellary Darden (as Solange) is generally less flighty and more assertive, but assertive of what, I don’t know. Overall, Darden’s performance reminded me of one of those overbearing, bully goldfish that keeps nipping at some other poor goldfish’s tail. Anita Merriman-Vargas plays the Madame with an occasional flash of humor, but otherwise is as generic as a police illustrator’s composite drawing of every rich bitch that ever appeared on a soap opera.
B.L. Johnson’s direction is frustrating. She seems to have translated the written word into the spoken voice without any understanding of what it all means. Speeches just come out of the actors’ mouths as if they were puking up a half-digested dictionary. In suiting the action to the word, Johnson relies on slim or no motivation at all, with an eye toward creating only the bluntest of stage pictures. For instance, Solange collapses unexpectedly at one point, and you have no idea why, until Claire “justifies” it with her next line, “Stand up straight.” And if you like that, you’ll love the red lighting and drummer-in-a-box mood music which highlights Solange’s big execution fantasy. I tell you, I don’t know what Johnson had in mind when she read this play. My only clue that she might, just maybe, have been trying to make a social statement is the fact that black actors are cast as the maids, and the Madame is played by a white actor. I suspect this isn’t exactly what Genet intended. Actually, in his own premiere, Genet insisted that all parts be played by men in drag.
I went to see The Maids with a friend who teaches philosophy. I asked him what he got out of it and he said, “A sore butt.” He’s a serious man, and an earnest, reflective thinker. I’ve never known anyone who gave people more benefit of the doubt. But there was no benefit to be derived from this show. It was confused at best, glibly unexamined at worst, and tedious in the extreme. It was a metaphor representing something, anything, but nothing quite so much as a sore butt.