“Oooooh, it’s a good play but it’s really hard to do.” That was the universal response I got from my in-the-know friends upon hearing I was reviewing French playwright Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids.
Having read the play (but not seen it staged), I could see what they meant. The psychosexual-murder drama — inspired by the real-life case of Christine and Léa Papin, who in 1933 murdered their mistress and her daughter with a hammer — has its challenges.
First there’s Genet’s flowery and distinctly literary dialogue. Then there’s the sadomasochistic and uncomfortably erotic nature of the story. Finally, the show requires that the absurdist elements not overpower a chill-down-our-spines reaction.
All this in a one-act, 75-minute play that has much talk but very little action.
In The Maids, the Papin sisters are transformed into Claire and Solange, servant siblings working for a wealthy mistress identified only as Madame. Ashamed and angered by their slavish lives, they take turns dressing up in Madame’s clothes and ordering each other about in abusive, vitriol-filled fashion. That is, until the role-play insults become too much and the servants turn on the mistress in murderess fashion.
It’s a wash, rinse and repeat kind of warped play-act ritual the sisters undertake, and it’s smack-dab in the middle of one of these performances that the show begins.
The sisters carry out their theatrical fantasy in Madame’s floor-to-ceiling dressing room, which is crammed with fashionably wearable luxuries (gorgeously realized by Jodi Bobrovsky). Taking her turn as Madame, Claire (played with terrific skittish nuance by Courtney Lomelo) powders her face and tries on jewels, all the while spitting vicious insults. “You are horrendous; lean forward and look at yourself in my shoes,” she tells Solange (played with great confidence by Patricia Duran).
But just as the ritual ramps up to the murder, an alarm rings, letting them know that Madame is soon to arrive. Returned to their real selves and cheated out of their fantasized climax, the sisters then turn on each other, complaining that once again they've run out of time because of one or the other’s incompetence. This time, however, they hatch a plan to carry out the murder for real.
It’s a strong opening that belies the limpness to come. Director Jon Harvey, who gave us such a hauntingly stylized and compelling production when he directed The Drowning Girls (also for Mildred’s Umbrella), here has neutered all that is eerily absorbing about Genet’s psychological, class-warfare thriller.
Lomelo and Duran do fine jobs with the image-soaked dialogue. They also do well evoking the sisters’ particular sicknesses. Claire (the weaker and more submissive of the pair) plays an aggressively cruel Madame to lessen her own feelings of worthlessness. Blazing-eyed, hateful Solange derives twisted pleasure from the insults fake Madame hurls at her and even greater pleasure at the thought of silencing those insults for good. And it does seem subversive that Claire has written a letter to the police accusing Madame’s husband (or lover; we are never sure) of thievery, resulting in his arrest. But Harvey never elevates their role playing and murderous intentions to anything we actually believe might be carried out. Their playacting seems just that, acting. Sure it’s a deviant performance, but at no point does it make the hairs on our necks stand at attention for what might come of it.
When, in haughty and snobbish fashion, Madame does arrive (Lindsay Ehrhardt in her best performance to date), we know that no matter how dismissive and manipulative she is with her maids, we are certain they will never exact their revenge, even though they try. A cup of poisoned tea gets foisted upon Madame, who is rushing out to meet her man now that he’s been let out on bail. But without our belief in the sisters as truly unhinged, the stakes for the moment are lost and all we experience is an attempted murder we know is going nowhere.
Further diminishing the lurid effect of the narrative is Harvey’s decision to remove all the sexual overtones that were part of Genet’s story. Rumor had it that the Papin sisters were found naked in bed together, leading to speculation of incest. Genet doesn’t go that far with his tale, but he does infuse a strong sexual element in the way the sisters react to one another and the role playing they undertake. But none of this is present in this PG-rated production, further reducing the creep factor and laying a wet blanket of impotence on the feel of the play.
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By the time we get to what are supposed to be the shocking final moments, we’re so deep into "so what" land, all we can muster in the end is a "huh, okay." Hardly the desired reaction to psychodrama.
So it’s to the cast’s credit that they manage to climb out of the milquetoast and shine. Just think what they could have done in a different production? Good help is so hard to find, but sometimes it’s the master, not the help, who makes the situation impossible.
The Maids continues through August 13 at Studio 101. 1824 Spring. For tickets, call 832-463-0409 or visit mildredsumbrella.com. $15-$25.