The Maids by Jean Genet. Directed by Thomas Gruenewald.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
David Anderson and Daniel Osman as Claire and Solange; photo: Peggy Reeves
"...a little altar to the holy virgin."
Was there ever a more specific writer than Jean Genet more adept at confusion and obfuscation? His 1947 play, "The Maids," now being given a superb production by the New Stage Theatre Company in Pittsfield, MA, is a perfect example of how easy it is to absorb the attention of the intellectuals while leaving them unsteady and in mid-air with parachutes that simply will not open. In this new production, one that shines with brilliantine and bubbles with borax, one is left doubting the senses one was born with. There is a compulsion to laugh, but little to laugh at. There is an equal compulsion to cry but nothing to cry about. To make matters even more indelicate one wishes to scream at times, but one knows how inappropriate that would be and so one doesnít.
This oddness of human reactions is the logical outcome, or illogical if you prefer it, of an evening spent with three wonderful actors giving the performances of their lives in cross-gendered roles that constantly vary between simulated life and real life and after a while it is hard to tell which is which. Or what is what.
Solange and Claire, sisters and maids in the large, multi-servanted household of "Madame" are desperately longing to do away with their mistress and live their own lives built on the remnants of their employerís world. Neither one has been successful in killing the woman, but both have had a joyride in her clothing and her attitudes. Except the attitudes are more their own. Or are they? Once she is dispatched to meet either her husband or lover, or both, on his sudden and temporary release from prison, the sisters, or Maids, set about destroying their own illusions of what life could offer them in a future dependent on nothing more or less than the complete loss of the woman who employs them. Or owns them. Or both. Or neither.
With enough plot points to keep Hollywood enlivened for a decade this mystery play unfolds its secrets slowly and carefully until, by the final moments, you are completely bewildered by Genetís stunning, brilliant and evil mind. Sadistic and Masochistic moments prevail as the sisters play-act and torture one another. Both have too good a time to satisfy either point of view. When Claire decides sheís had enough and drinks a cup of tea previously poisoned by her to dispatch Madame, it is never clear that she actually kills herself, and yet her talent as an actress and improvisor may in fact be allowing her to fake her own death just to see how Solange will react. The fate of both these women may be left in the hands of an unseen audience for whom both women perform at length.
Played by three men, as Genet intended, the question then becomes what is real and what is theater. Is there a difference when all is said and done? Is there a need for reality at all? The author makes his point brilliantly when the play is performed - as it is here - by talented men who have no need to pretend to be women as they play women. Instead they are who they are, act as they act, perform as they must.
Ken De Loreto is Madame, the smallest, briefest of the three roles. Here is a character rich enough to throw away a fur coat and a couture gown, yet modest enough to reclaim all of her possessions in the name of liberated love. De Loreto has a style that gives him perfect poise as a woman of stature yet leaves us wondering about her personal values. He offers up a portrayal of trust and faith and hope emerging from hopelessness, faithlessness and mistrust. His Madame is a creature of habit shedding her skin and yet retaining it for future donning as needed.
David Anderson is perfectly brilliant as Claire. He is clear and resonant at all times in what may be his finest performance of his best role yet in this region. His emotional collapse and the aftermath of such an event are stunning to watch. His earlier scenes of dominance and decision are both lovely (the feminine) and determined (the male). He is a joy to behold in drag and a force to be reckoned with as the moments require.
Creating Solange with overwhelming star-power, local actor Daniel Osman is a revelation. He has a 22 minute monologue near the end of the play and the time speeds by as he literally (though not physically) slams into the walls of Madameís boudoir. There isnít a cogent thought he doesnít express, not a fragrant emotion that isnít shattered by him before our eyes. If his world, or her world to be precise, isnít a stack of bibles written in Sanskrit and translated by a drunken poetess with no knowledge of the original language then there is no justice, no honesty, left in this world. Osman manages to confuse our senses, our ears and our minds with the babble Genet has created to give Solange a depth she may not have in reality. Osman keeps everything on the surface, even Solangeís pain, and yet he reveals depths to this character that not even the playwright imagined were there.
Keeping this all together is the very talented director Thomas Gruenewald who has practically choreographed the work. As the two sisters circle one another, alternating a predatory stance with a feminine expression, the directorís hand is evident yet not intrusive. He is not in sight, but his actors are. He shows us men donning female attire and wigs. We have no surprises coming and yet he and his actors consistently surprise and delight with sudden alterations and fits of immorality. Even the long monologue is staged with clarity and an unusual breaking of the invisible fourth wall that usually protects "us" from "them."
Charles Tomlinsonís set is lovely and appropriate as are his costumes. Benjamin Elliott provides stark lighting that seems to change slightly now and then as emotions peak or dwindle. There is a seamlessness with the pre-show music, Astor Piazzollaís discordant Argentinian dances that aggravate rather than lull.
I have seen four productions of this play, and read it several times, and even the historic note in the program about the source of inspiration leaves me without a true grasp of the authorís intention - and I love Genet. This production clarifies moments and still leaves me wondering about the two sisters, the Maids, about the who, what, why and why not. I donít like being left in the dark, but I love being asked to think and thatís what this production ultimately does: it makes me think and wonder and question. I can live with that. I like that. I liked this!
The Maids plays at New Stage Theatre Company above the Beacon Movie Theatre at 55 North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through October 31. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-418-0999.