Berger and his scenic designer, Dane Laffrey, have reconfigured the theater’s traditional stage into a playing area of alarming intimacy. Four banks of chairs look through openings variously representing windows, paintings, or mirrors into the lush red box of an upscale mid-20th-century French boudoir. Cramped but opulently furnished, it’s unquestionably the possession of someone with taste, money, and no inhibitions — someone who, most likely, is not like you. As you look across the set, you become acutely aware of the other people watching you, just as hungry and voyeuristic as you are for some glimpse, some explanation, of the life of someone wealthy enough to live here.
That’s key, of course, for the title duo as well. Claire (Jeanine Serralles) and Solange (Ana Reeder) are attendants on the glamorous Madame, who’ve come to both depend on her wealth and generosity and despise the station they know will never be theirs. Throughout their days they enact the deepest fantasies in which they alternate playing the employer and the help, in attempts to satiate their desires and jealousies, and kill time until they can kill the source of their woes. Once Madame (J. Smith-Cameron) arrives, however, plans change as pacts dissolve and reality intervenes.
Because of the tininess of the setup, you’re never more than a few feet from one of them, and that wrenches their discontent out of the theoretical and into the actual. Seeing the look of beatific satisfaction on Claire’s face as she dons an ostentatious red dress in her fantasy, or feeling a wave of frustration washing over you as Solange forsakes a potent opportunity for freedom, suffocates you in the luxurious life as much as they are. You come to see the bedroom as their cage rather than their sandbox, and as the women’s behavior becomes increasingly animalistic and violent, and as Madame herself seems to shrink out of sight as she struggles to find her place within her own property, you see the deeper wisdom of the set: Not only is this realm inescapable, it barely provides you glimpses of better places in your peripheral vision.
It’s an all-encompassing concept that works without additional gimmickry (it’s often said that Genet stipulated the roles to be played by men, to further heighten the conceit’s disconnecting strangeness), in no small part because Berger has approached it so completely. Giving Solange and Claire so little space forces them into themselves and onto each other, and underscores Madame’s own powerlessness. With his staging Berger traps and confuses you just like them, and in doing so reinforces the desperation under which they operate, with an intensity you won’t have encountered if you spend much of your own life unconcerned about earning money or otherwise making your mark, or that you probably won’t recognize even if you’re not far removed from the maids’ class yourself.
Smith-Cameron, decked out in a mock–blonde bombshell wig, captures Madame’s quiet desolation with overtones that are appropriately both heartbreaking and annoying; there’s no doubt how she inspires such love-hate emotions in the people who work for her. Reeder is magnetic as Solange, finding myriad moments both cunning and touching in the more put-upon of the domestics, and gracefully transitioning from victim to victimizer and back again. Serralles has more difficulty negotiating the changes in mood and tone between the “performance” scenes and the real ones, usually hiding behind a hollow stammer or an artificial grin, except for the final 10 minutes, in which the tension drains from her body and you see that Claire has accepted the fate that, whether she likes it or not, has always been hers.
The ending of The Maids is, like much of what precedes it, poetic, absorbing, and overwrought, but Reeder and Serralles find within it a palpable humanity that tempers the ultimate tragedy of the proceedings. Perhaps Berger and his performers haven’t unlocked many new insights, but they’ve focused on what’s there strongly enough to produce a worthwhile journey to take and plenty to see. Including, of course, each other: Try as you might, you can’t help but look past Claire, Solange, and Madame to see those sitting just beyond the opposite wall who are judging you in the same way. The message couldn’t be clearer: We’re all in this together and we’re all part of the problem. Genet and Berger succeed at making the related anguish that floods most of the 90 minutes of play time seem like a necessary place to be.