nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
March 10, 2012
“I am not a maid; I have a noble soul!” wails the feverish serving woman to an imagined accuser, diverting her attention from the corpse lying akimbo nearby.
Jean Genet’s The Maids is a desperate, manic, often nasty affair served predictably well by Red Bull Theater. I know “predictably” is hardly the epithet one lusts after for press pulls, but it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Red Bull that they once again come through with an admirably assured, relevant, and dynamic production. After all, their remarkable consistency has earned them a reputation as one of the most exciting classical theaters in New York.
That being said, it was a delight to see them tackle a more contemporary script this time around—and though their productions have heretofore been of a distinctly more Jacobean fashion, Genet feels like a natural choice. His tale of two serving women who conspire to murder their mistress attains the poetic sturm und drang of any thundering Middletonian revenge drama—modern or not, it’s distinctly heightened; and while it toes the line with melodrama, this production grounds the script with a trio of palpably real performances.
Genet’s script dates from 1947 (inspired by true events that occurred in 1933) and is of a family with plays like Strindberg’s Dance of Death and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: dramas in which a game is played between two desperate characters that blurs the lines between identity and escape, and poisoned-tipped barbs hit with increasing vigor as the inescapability of reality affirms itself. Of course, one need be neither psychologist nor historian to find fascinating and revealing reverberations in this story about violation, power, roleplay, fatalism, and existential horror produced in a country not three years removed from its Nazi occupation, but it speaks to the power of Genet’s work that The Maids achieves a universality that transcends its context (however fertile). This is difficult stuff—and hallucinatory at times—so its accessibility is doubly impressive given the darkness it plumbs.
Jesse Berger’s direction is fluid and engaging, never letting the pace flag. Dane Laffrey’s set, a gorgeous life-sized diorama around which the audience sits like literal flies on the wall, is a work of art, and Berger’s navigation thereupon (no easy task considering the potential sightline obstructions at work) is most skillful. Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes and Morgan Fox’s props are perfectly opulent and lush, making remarkably clear the world in which our titular heroines are losing their minds. And the sound and lights, designed by Brandon Wolcott and Peter West, respectively, are expertly subtle.
The cast of three is a remarkable ensemble. J. Smith-Cameron is marvelous as Madame, striking just the right balance between solipsism and genuine (albeit condescending) interest in her servants, all while giving us a very tangible sense of a deep sadness. Ana Reeder gives us a conflicted Solange, struggling to appear as moored as possible. Her role is the most oblique of the three, which led to occasional moments wherein I felt somewhat distant, but whether or not that’s an asset to the performance admittedly depends on how you interpret her character—my companion connected to her in part because of the same reasons I felt inclined to nitpick. And Reeder ably shoulders Solange’s rantings as the play nears its conclusion.
However, Jeanine Serralles’ turn as Clair is a remarkable feat. Ricocheting between fragility and towering passion, frightening in her intensity, in her self-loathing, in her need to escape, Serralles sounds every note in her impressively dynamic instrument, yet it never feels like she’s overdoing it, and she gives Genet’s dense language stunningly natural life.
Those either expecting or dreading an Occupy-ish rant piece against the 1% can rest easy—this is hardly a piece about class warfare (nor is it some Tarantino-esque spin on The Help, as some adverts might make you believe). The Maids is first and foremost a giddy descent into two women’s destabilizing unhappiness and Red Bull Theater does this modern classic proud by dutifully following them into the abyss.