Monday, June 11, 2012
Theater review: The Maids at The Green Zone in Dallas
A play well worth seeing for its complexity.
Jean Genet's plays have long been university drama department icons of both production and analysis. Theatre History professors often site Genet as a leading figure in the avant-garde theatre, especially Theatre of the Absurd. His complex works influenced the lead dramatists of the day, including Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Alfred Jarry.
Genet's life of early abandonment, delinquency and deprivation completely absorbed and fueled his play's themes of ritual, identity, illusion and transformation. Born in Paris in 1910, he was left to his own devices and found himself in a series of institutions and prisons for thievery, homosexuality and prostitution. His famous quote is that "I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me."
Wandering around Europe for over ten years, he always felt a social outcast and always out of place. After yet another imprisonment, at age 33, Genet first began writing novels on what he knew best – his fellow outcasts and the mutual entrapment in society's and their own self-destructive circles.
Turning to playwriting, his first, Deathwatch, revolves around inmates who struggle for domination in a tiny prison cell. His next play, The Maids, is loosely based on France's Papin sisters who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter in 1933. It examines ritualization in the guise of two maids who role-play being their employer, Madame, or the servant whom she abuses. The play relies heavily on ceremony, blurring of identities and sadomasochism to perpetuate the maid's loathing of both Madame and themselves.
Fresh out of SMU's Meadow School of the Arts, a group of actors, directors and designers have formed a new theatre company, Best Revenge Productions. While I don't know this for a fact, I hope they took their name from Stephen Fife's witty personal accounts of working in our regional theatre system, "Best Revenge – How The Theatre Saved My Life ... And Has Been Killing Me Ever Since." After reading this theatre primer, these are brave souls indeed to still want to "do theatre" and produce The Maids (playing at The Green Zone in Dallas through June 17).
Presenting this play in the intimacy of the The Green Zone venue lends a bit of audience voyeurism, quite appropriate for this intense one act. We find two maids, Claire and Solange, in their employer's bedroom, one wearing one of Madame's gowns and applying makeup while the other plays her subservient self, in an often-performed ritual of dominance and subjugation. The two are sisters and that further intertwines the role reversal aspect as each, in turn, towers over or cowers under in their game playing. Madame appears, abruptly interrupting the women who must quickly revert to themselves, though bits of their characterizations linger while attending to their mistress. Hearing that Madame's husband is out of prison, where he was falsely held, she rushes out as quickly and as unconcerned of her maids as when she arrived. Seething in their employer's uncaring, the two women fall quickly back to their ritual, though now more heightened and frenzied. The ceremonial ending reveals the depth of the maids' transformation and desire to be free.
Best Revenge Production has called this an original production. They did condense some of The Maids and left off a dream-like finale, partially due, I would imagine, to budget and the theatre space constraints. While the abbreviated version does not harm the story line, it did leave the audience questioning the extent of the two women's ritual. Genet wrote such a deeply complex piece that to go into detail would certainly ruin the mystery aspect of the play.
A simple set of red paneled walls and open, curtained spaces representing windows, expressed Madame's rich taste. A vanity with see through mirror frame, beautifully curved armchair and vanity seat and veneered wardrobe reflected her wealth. All accessories such as old-fashioned telephone and colorful vases filled with flowers placed all around the room lent an old-world aspect. A digital alarm clock alongside a lovely mantel clock was perplexing, though Claire comments that it came from the kitchen, and so the idea that maybe this one room had been left as it was many years ago.
Genet's works, whether novels or plays, are filled with erotic, often obscene subject matter. His life experiences in prison, living with the world's "lowlifes" consumed him and spills out in his writing. Under the direction of Piper Werle, the eroticism of the rituals and their subjugation of themselves were not fully explored. These women desperately crave the ceremony of their game playing and see it on a more religious, spiritual realm. They mention the Virgin several times, and part of them also worships Madame. Whether from a limited life experience or a hesitation to push the play to that level and the actors to their limits, Werle guided both well but underserved Genet's true intent with this work.
The two women portraying Claire and Solange, Susanna Batres and Alia Tavakolian respectively, were quite competent actresses and both had great moments of intense interaction with each other. While the characters interchanged roles of Madame, maid and even each other, each actress made her place in the ritual very clear and concise, which is not an easy task with such rapid fire reversals. What kept their performances on a good but not great level is that they sped through their dialogue without that good old basic "act, listen, react" formula so necessary for realistic exchange. Even in an absurdist play such as The Maids, and especially as they are supposed to be making it up as they role play, both needed to slow it down so each could listen, and then know their next part in the ritual. So much of Genet's deep, disturbing elements of these two women were lost by the quick lines. At only eighty minutes and usually performed with another one act, there was more than enough time to do just that – take the time.
In a true role reversal performance, and homage to Genet's desire that the two maids be played by men, Steven Smith played Madame with all the self-absorption, shallowness and weakness the character deserved. His voice and body language reflected a woman who, on the surface, held power and domination over the trapped maids, yet underneath was just as powerless and submissive as they were. Smith took on his character with gusto though at times just a tad over the top. I was impressed that he never went as far as camp – that would have killed an otherwise good characterization and performance.
Costumes by Emilee Kyle were appropriate and clearly reflected the characters' status in life. The maid's uniforms were typical black dress with white Peter Pan collar, black hose and flats. Madame's gowns, fur and cocktail dress were appropriate though did not represent any particular time period. Lighting by Heather LaRocco was a generic wash with two onstage practicals. Sound by Afomia Hailemeskel was also what was needed for an alarm clock and telephone and muted orchestration at the end.
Best Revenge's first production is an admirable one and The Maids is a play well worth seeing for its complexity, for a superb example of Jean Genet's work in avant garde theatre and for performances to be proud of and worthy of the effort. The playbill lists forty four people or organizations that assisted in making this production happen. It's heartwarming to see our community welcome a new troupe with open arms. So, raise your glasses high and here's to this new company that has proven good theatre is always the best revenge.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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