The Washington Shakespeare Company has taken a crack at "The Maids," French avant-garde novelist and playwright Jean Genet’s one-act play, the story of three sisters serving as maids in the home of their unnamed mistress.
The production is one of a few that that respects Genet’s original intention of having the all-female cast of characters played by all male performers. When it was first produced 1947, even the leading theaters of France insisted on having women rather than men play the maids. Even today, most productions of the play include an all-female cast, and a recent movie adaptation continued the trend.
But this new production takes Genet at his word, and the cross-dressing adds a rewarding layer of identity confusion to a play that is really about just that — confused identities.
"The Maids" was Genet’s first play intended for production in the then-reemerging art theaters of Europe, instead of just in the homosexual arts community in which he had first become known. He based it on a notorious French case from before the outbreak of World War , in which two maids, the Pepin sisters, poisoned their mistress.
In Genet’s version, these maids, Claire and Solange are sisters devoted to their mistress, Madame, even though she cruelly mistreats them. Genet has them acting out their frustrations over the mistreatment, and imagining their revenge by poison the lady of the house.
They play out their fantasies in a most confusing way: As Claire and Solange take turns imitating Madame, the other sister plays either herself or her sister. The confusion is purposeful, and it is compounded by the use of actors instead of actresses.
The maids’ game finally turns to reality, but events turn back on the sisters as their mistress fails to drink the poison.
While the play is a single act, it has five very distinct scenes, and plays more like a five-act play without any intermission. At an 90 minutes for the entire piece, the pace is quick, and puts a premium on clear characterizations from the three-man cast – particularly the two men playing the maids.
Director Jose Carrasquillo gets that clarity from Christopher Henley and Jeffrey Johnson. The two men are no strangers to Washington Shakespeare’s stage; Henley, the artistic director of Washington Shakespeare Company, and Johnson, who has appeared with the company many times.
They create very different personalities for the two sisters, and then carry the traits through even as, in the maids’ game, one girl pretends to be the other. Neither Henley or Johnson attempt a female impersonation but both avoid any camp humor in their femininity. It is a difficult discipline to maintain but is clearly sustained here.
Dressed in the drab grey uniforms of their position, they occupy a dingy world in their basement quarters of the mistress’s house. Set designer Giorgos Tsappas creates that world in the corner of the warehouse area at Clark Street rather than in the theater’s auditorium.
The audience is arrayed on bleachers before the playing space. Since the warehouse area is not air-conditioned, this can mean a hot time for a while on warm nights.
When Karl Miller makes his entrance as the mistress it is in a fabulously outrageous gown and headdress and the entrance is through a sliding industrial door that reveals bright light and color. His over-the-top performance matches the visual impact of the entrance.
This is the first time in two decades that a major theater company in the area has produced a play by Jean Genet. The entire package that director Carrasquillo has put together gives local theatergoers a chance to get a feel for the work of this well known but rarely performed playwright.