The powerless have a complicated relationship with power in Jean Genet’s 1947 Absurdist drama The Maids: Claire and Solange both hate Madame and love her, aspire to both kill and be her. Genet’s unnerving look at class, power, and Otherness never really gets old, and Gary Locke directs an exquisitely acted production at The Players’ Ring, starring the exceptional Seacoast-area actors Whitney Smith and Constance Witman.
Genet, the orphaned homosexual son of a prostitute and wrongly accused as a child of theft, soon became an actual thief, and spent time in and out of prison. His entire experience was concerned with power, belonging, and the sense of being an outsider despised by the bourgeois class. In The Maids, while Madame (Nancy Pearson) is away, maids and sisters Claire (Smith) and Solange (Witman)playact their rage and self-loathing in stylized, sadomasochistic rituals. Each woman takes a turn as “Madame” and as each other, in a murderous storyline in which personas and reality become increasingly convoluted.
In the Players’ Ring beautifully staged production, Madame’s bedroom – the site of the rituals – is simple Old World elegance, with bouquets, dressing screens, aand vanity table of select shiny things. Prominent center stage is a low, pearl-colored bed, a quietly luminous symbol of the eroticism implicit in power, and a wide slatted window upstage, backlit in blue or red, sometimes reveals a dark silhouette of Monsieur – the Man.
Smith and Witman give well-paired performances of startling nuance, grace, and empathy. Smith’s Claire, the curvier younger sister, trills and laughs soars before stopping on a dime of darkness. She is the first to play Madame, and Smith gives her rouged “Madame” an exaggerated sonorousness and grandiosity. As the elder sister, Witman, with her compact frame and angular face, given a pallor and darkness under her eyes, is sharper, more restrained, with a controlled fury that feels as ancient and hard as a diamond.
The two are in near-constant motion and contact with Madame’s lovely things, movements in which every action carries a conscious weight – a hand mirror tossed to the bed, a dress smoothed. They immerse in their playworld with the intensity of children, breaking character only occasionally. Their personas, in constant flux, slip between that of “Madame,” “Claire,” or “Solange” and each woman’s “own” voice. “Get my necklace!” demands Claire as Madame, and immediately afterward, “Hurry, we won’t have time before she gets home!”
When Madame is in the room, her own melodrama and condescension, in Pearson’s hands, show us how accurate are her servants’ impressions. We can also see, in exacting physical work, how Claire and Solange have incorporated her gestures – cheeks blown in impatience, fingers combing the air as she speaks – not just into their impressions, but into their “own” personas. Such scenes also offer canny little moments of humor, in the sisters’ eyes to each other behind the back of Madame, being their “real” selves. And yet even these “real” selves are defined, inescapably, chillingly, against Madame.
I’ve seen The Maids breathtakingly performed with more garish trappings of makeup and costumes (and all-male casting, something Genet himself suggested), which edged its grotesquerie closer to horror and added a level of abstraction to its protagonists. This fine Players’ Ring production, with its superb actors’ fascinating, devastating nuance, lets us in closer to the women as women, not just as members of a class. Its scariness pivots on how much like us, or close to us, these enraged servants might be.
The Maids, by Jean Genet. Directed by Gary Locke. Produced by Fearon Productions, at the Players’ Ring, through February 12. Visit www.playersring.org.