There's also the delightfully grand Elizabeth Ann Townsend, as "the Mistress," the irredeemably spoiled woman of the houseand if you rolled Nathan Lane up inside of Vera Charles, you'd still be one or two canapés shy of what she's able to serve up between her wildly colorful engagements off-stage. Ms. Edwards and Ms. Baker wait at home, piling up a long list of grievances against their outrageous employer, and open the show replaying her self-indulgences, with Ms. Edwards posing the brazen socialite. You can see why some people branded Genet a "communist" during the Cold War: the maids, for all their bitter suits against the upper class, will never catch a break.
The scene is laid in the Mistress' beautiful pink bedchamber, and the comic mood is embellished right away by the overture to The Marriage of Figaro as Ms. Edwards plays the royal, dipping into her employer's supply of cosmetics at the make-up table. The other maid (Ms. Baker) fusses around as she would, preparing her "Mistress" for a typical evening out, even as Ms. Edwards becomes more and more broadly, brutally exasperated with her "servant's" alleged incompetence. Finally, after many a vicious jab, Ms. Edwards is draped in Caesarian red velvet, as if to greet the fall of Rome. But if you didn't read the Director's Notes before the show, or pay attention to the visual and musical cues thoughtfully supplied by director Wieslaw Gorski, well, you might get the wrong impression. Thank goodness, this one time, I actually did look at the program beforehand.
The Maids captures the same primal passion of the human soul that Genet revealed in The Blacks. But, going by the picture that accompanies this review, you might think it was just some lascivious tale of servant girls in love. It's not until the final stages of madness, however, that we totally lose touch with reality, and the two sisters have only each other to cling to when their plotting goes awry. An unexpected phone call, and the return of the uncooperative Mistress, spell disaster for them both.
And that's where the mastery of Upstream Theatre goes into orbit, leaving bitchy comedy behind like a booster rocket. The new feel of the The Maids will be familiar to those who've already seen Blood Wedding or Knives in Hens or Aerwacol or pretty much any of their past shows, where tormented human souls seem to be thrown off the sun, only to crash into our atmosphere like an aurora borealis.
That's also where this show becomes its most challenging, because the set is still dressed for effusive, harmless mayhem. The stylistic contrast is almost too much, but director Gorski and his two maids create a nearly unexplainable wrinkle in time and space, as they hang on to one another: ruined amidst the opulence, trapped on a cliff of their own devising.
You can always expect an evening of mind-bending theater from Upstream; you just can't always predict how they'll achieve it.
Translated by Martin Crimp, The Maids runs through March 4, 2012, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand (at Olive), less than a mile north of I-64. For information, visit www.upstreamtheatre.org or call (314) 863-4999.
* Member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers
(EMC) Denotes Equity Membership Candidate
Photograph by Peter Wochniak