I was glad I caught the Red Bull Theater's production of The Maids in one of its final performances because it was an unusual staging, with strong acting, and it is a work I had not seen performed before. Jean Genet's play is about two maids, who are sisters, who play-act a strange ritualistic "ceremony" when their mistress is out. Jeanine Seralles is Claire and Ana Reeder is Solange with J. Smith-Cameron as Madame, their mistress.
This production, directed by Jesse Berger is performed in the "square" so to speak. With the audience sitting outside a box while the action is performed within the box (which is the mistress's decadently decorated bedroom). With viewing windows carved into the bedroom, it feels a bit like we are spying on the intimate goings-on in this bedroom. Though it is not the mistress we largely end up spying on, but the Maids, who are acting out their ritual where one plays the mistress and the other her maid, with the mistress lobbing exaggerated insults and the maid diligently taking them. Once the mistress actually returns to the house, we see that little was actually exaggerated and she is a bit of a poodle--high energy, flighty, expensively done-up, with lots of curls, and abusive to her dedicated maids (and Smith-Cameron does this very well). But we also know they have launched a plot against her.
I had seen Serrales in Maple and Vine and was eager to see her in something else. She's incredible at portraying "artifice" which was largely her role in Maple and Vine and comes into play here quite a bit as well. But what was most impressive was how she managed to easily oscillate between bold Claire, Claire in the role of the Mistress, and timid church-mouse Claire. I loved watching her move between those characters and seeing the changes shift across her face and take over her whole body. If you see she is cast in a play, just go see it. She is an incredible talent.
It took me a while longer to warm up to Reeder. I struggled with her portrayal of Solange up until a certain emotional breakdown moment. When the role became overtly emotional, she excelled at it.
This play was a wonderful companion piece to Cheek by Jowl's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore. Both used luscious color, colorful set design, extreme theatricality, and both address taboo topics with sincerity.
The Maids digs into issues of class, power, control, freedom, religion, ritual, dominance, submission, shame. It is incredible to think that Genet wrote this provocative play in 1947 and the themes
are still relevant today. There was something about these women pouring
over murder magazines and fantasizing about the celebrity they might gain from their bad acts that seems even more relevant today. It is chockablock with meaty topics for the actresses to wrestle with and the audience to be confronted with. Genet's love of the forgotten, the base, or the voiceless is apparent here. I loved it when Solange responds to Claire (as the mistress) saying they are in "the world of outcasts that you only touch with your tongs."
I found a lot of humor in this production of the play. The language is colorful and
theatrical but Serralles's delivery was at times utterly gleeful (I
happened to like the snake-like tongue moves she would make upon saying
the name "Claire").
The theatricality of the ritualistic play-acting is fascinating to watch and see how it serves as an outlet of their anger, a cause of shame, but works to calm and soothe them. It feeds them and also destroys them.
There was so much to this material, I wished I had had an opportunity to see it again.