Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Genet wrote The Maids in 1946, the first of the quartet comprising his best known plays, the others being The Balcony, The Blacks and The Screens. All of those deal with a line of strife between a class that holds power and a class excluded from power. In The Maids, sisters Solange and Claire feel crushed by the weight of Madame's scorn for them. In fantasy scenes they enact in Madame's absence, one of them dresses up in her finery and jewelry, use her make-up, and lounge in her bed. The one who remains a maidbut, significantly, not herself, as she takes on her sister's nameis berated and vilified by her employer, but then, in a subtle shift, the tables turn and the maid becomes master over Madame, moving from verbal to physical to erotic domination, and finally to the brink of murder. Always, their roleplay ends before the real Madame comes home, Madame's gowns restored to her closet, the make-up on her vanity table straightened out, the two sisters regaining their submissive pose as they greet their returning mistress.
This day is different, however. Not only is their mistress out of the house, but the Monsieur is gone. He has been arrested, on charges linked in some way to letters Claire sent to the authorities. With the master out of the way, this is the sisters' chance to make their fantasy into fact, to actually murder their mistress. A plot is launched, though Solange and Claire bicker over which of the two has the constitution to do the deed. Madame returns ... perhaps for the last time. Madame's fate not-withstanding, at the end of the day what is clear is that the sister maids, who both labor under the weighty thumb of their wealthy bosses, will not rise as one, but will end up divided, with one taking defeat while the other endures. It is the way subjected groups have always turned against one another rather than build on the strength that unites them against a common oppressor.
Genet himself was an outsider in society, in spite of his success as a writer. His mother was a prostitute who gave him up for adoption. In his youth he was placed in a reform school, and he joined the French Foreign Legion, but was dishonorably discharged for gross indecency (committing homosexual acts), then spent his early adult years in and out of prison for vagrancy, thievery, and lewd behavior. As a gay man when that was in itself considered a crime, he always saw himself as a social outcast. It is completely plausible that the oppressed sisters, who fantasize revolt against authority but in fact only succeed in humiliating one another, are representative of Genet and the company he kept.
Be that as it may, The Maids does not make for a pleasant theater experience. The premise is built upon absurd behaviors, but in this instance, Theatre of the Absurd feels weighed down by the sadomasochistic exchanges between the contesting sisters. The absurdity does not leaven the thesis, as it did in Theatre in the Round's recent mounting of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, but simply distances it from the possibility that, as an audience member, I could be made to care about these two pitiful women. I grasp and sympathize with their circumstances writ large, but the specific way in which they respond to their plight repels, rather than draws me toward them. Further, for all their declaiming against Madame, when she makes her appearance she comes across as being clueless rather than despotic, an oppressor by virtue of her position, not by any intentional malice. Her greatest flaw seems to be her stupidity. This can certainly incense Claire and Solange, but is it a capital offense?
So if the play left me uninvolved and unsympathetic toward its protagonists, what about the production? The Maids marks the directing debut of Dark & Stormy's founder and producing director, Sara Marsh. Marsh bravely stepped in after Mel Daya frequent Dark & Stormy collaboratorwithdrew due to a health concern. As one of three cast members, Marsh took on the dual challenges of being a first-time director and also directing herself. In some ways she meets this challenge very well indeedthe energy and physical entanglement between the sisters is fraught with the anger of sibling rivalry, charged with an ever-present erotic edge. The sniping between the sisters feels authentic, with incendiary sparks of rivalry tempered by occasional expressions of affection. Too, their response to Madame's mindless condescensiondeferential in her presence, scornful in her absencefeels genuine. What is missing is any sense that these two maids matter, that the harshness of their lives has earned them something better. I found it impossible to root for any of these three women, and it all just felt like a dreary exercise in debasement, the meaning squeezed out of it.
The three actors on stage have all done exceptional work in the past. Here, however, Sara Marsh is overly stagy as Solange, her usually effective facial and vocal expressiveness used excessively so that we see her acting, rather than being, the part. Jane Froiland, as Claire, likewise overstates her frailty and adopts overly strident postures when trying to assert her strength. We cannot believe that she is, by turns, as weepy or as fearless as she behaves. Emily Bridges has a much smaller role as Madame, but actually comes across best, creating a believable airhead insulated from the strife the maids lived with by her, or her husband's, fortune and position. Her modulation of that status due to his arrest comes across as a sincere, if fleeting, change in outlook.
The intimate space in Dark & Stormy's studio, housed in the Grain Belt Warehouse, is an advantage, as we are perched right at the edge of the turmoil on stage. A four-poster bed (a hold-over from the last production, Fool for Love), side tables laden with flowers, and a vanity table holding Madame's lotions, powders and jewelry with an ornate chandelier establishing the wealth of the room's occupant form the set designed by Katie Phillips. Mary Shabatura's lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design enrich the production, while costume designer Lisa Jones has provided pert maid's uniforms with cuffs that resemble shackles, and gowns for Madame that exude matronly wealth.
I had high hopes for this mounting of The Maids, as Dark & Stormy is one of our most reliable companies for staging challenging work that pushes us to face uncomfortable truths. However, little in Genet's play seems grounded in truth beyond his own demons, hardly making a case for universal meaning. I have no doubt Dark & Stormy will be back with thrilling theater, but The Maids does not show this bold company at its best.
The Maids, through February 17, 2018, at Dark & Stormy Productions in the Grain Belt Warehouse, 77 13th Avenue N.E, Studio 201, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00, under age 30 tickets: $15.00. For tickets call 612-401-4506 or go to darkstormy.org.
Written by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman; Director: Sara Marsh; Assistant Director: Michaela Johnson; Set and Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Costume Design: Lisa Jones; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhodes; Directing Consultant: Ryan Underbakke; Technical and Design Consultant: Michael James; Producer: Myron Frisch.
Cast: Emily Bridges (The Madame), Jane Froiland (Claire), Sara Marsh (Solange).