A poet and novelist as well as a playwright, Jean Genet viewed theater as a revolt against society. Without reformist intent, he willfully descended into cruelty, degradation and abjection. Through ceremony, ritual, symbolism, lyricism, stylization and masquerade, he moved beyond the customary limits of feelings and words to unite theatergoers through metaphysical experiences that surpassed normal conceptions of good and evil. Genet turned humiliation into a form of glory and the interdependence of social roles and treachery into powerful theater. In his masterwork, The Balcony, and other plays, he violated social taboos, reduced identity to role-playing, showed scenes of horror and created as his characters traitors, murderers, hypocrites and sadomasochists -- all in the name of painful sublimity.
The Maids (1947), now in a faithful but flawed production by the Gypsy Theatre, was Genet's first attempt to equate reality with appearance and appearance with a sick game. Based on the real-life 1933 murder of a mistress by domestics (and sisters) Christine and Lea Papin, the one-act opens as an elegant lady is dressed by her maid. Madame is demanding and arrogant; the maid, patient and obsequious. "You're hideous," says Madame. "Lean over and look at yourself in my shoes." Gradually the maid becomes angry, slapping Madame; gradually we become aware that their relationship is strange, exaggerated.
Soon an alarm clock rings, waking the audience up to the fact that both women are servants, acting out a never-completed ritual of domination, abasement and rebellion whenever the real Madame is out. These are sisters in a charade: the dominant Solagne has been pretending to be the weaker Claire, while Claire has been Madame.
Deeply resenting their inferior social position, the maids try to punish Madame, who's blithely unaware of their bitterness, by betraying her criminal lover to the police. But he is quickly released, and in fear, or out of jealousy, the maids decide to poison Madame. When this fails, they resort to their play-acting. Only now the gestures become real: Claire-as-Madame calls for and drinks poison, leaving Solagne (or Solagne-as-Claire) to lament and eulogize the futility of the outcast -- or the upriser.
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Under the direction of Charlene Hudgins, the Gypsy Theatre Company dutifully stocks its production with Genet necessities. The boudoir set (designed by Hudgins and technical director Chip Manfre), full of candles, flowers, a coat rack of fluorescent fright wigs and garish paintings of notorious women who've killed, jibes with Genet's symbolism, mysticism and ceremony. Furthermore, the playing area is ingeniously encompassed by a large, suspended hoop from which wide, amply spaced strips of sheets descend; this open-air construct lends a necessary theatricality to the goings-on. In accordance, Hudgins directs herself (Solagne), Constance O'Brien (Claire) and Linda Flores (Madame) to gesture stylistically, move ritualistically and recite formulaically.
Yet strangely, these are to little effect. It's as if the actors follow instructions but don't know why they're doing so or how to implement them suitably. Their conduct should assault and hypnotize, but their enunciation is dangerously close to bad foreign B-movies dubbed into English, their movements to showroom models on The Price Is Right. What's more, the production fails to emotionalize and purify the intensity of the action and of Genet's searing language, denying the audience the impetus to transform things to metaphorical levels. The incestuous overtures between the sisters are insufficiently hinted at, and the significance of Claire's self-sacrifice is passed over. Most problematic is that Hudgins gives away the charade from the very beginning; she deprives the audience of the Pirandello-ish astonishment that begins with the sound of the alarm clock.
What with excessive white-powder make-up and Manfre's glaring light changes and background music with lyrics about games and obsessions, it seems to have been a conscious decision on Hudgins' part not to foreshadow the role reversals and power plays but to telegraph them.
Her tactic rightly discards all notions of empirical reality, but it also abandons Genet's unsettling hold on his audience. The Gypsy Theatre Company, bravely producing an intimidating playwright, would have done better to reveal the game of life just as the maids remove the protective sheets covering the boudoir furniture: slowly, to the accruing pace of momentous discovery.