The Maids

By Jean Genet
Directed by Hillary Spector
Red Poppy Theatre
78th Street Theatre Lab
Non-union production (closed)
Review by Doug DeVita

Very few modern playwrights have had the courage or insight to explore the true power that lies behind our darkest fantasies with as much truth and ferocity as Jean Genet. In his 1947 work The Maids, his fascination with the mores of a bourgeois society at odds with its needs and its wants is analyzed with a corrosive perception of human pain and resentment that is at once provocative and chilling. Two resentful maids, Claire and Solange (who are sisters) dream of murdering their mistress, referred to only as Madame. When their plot to frame Madame's lover fails, the sisters are left to enact their murderous game upon each other.

The Red Poppy Theatre Co., under the direction of Hillary Spector, has developed a movement-theatre approach to The Maids that briefly previewed in New York prior to a planned production at the 1999 Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival (from July 1 to July 7). In this version, the two discombobulated sisters fantasize through ritualized gestures and dance movements that are meant to tease out the psychological nuances inherent in Genet's nasty little play. But instead of delicately exposing the heart of the already stylized text, the imposition of an over-the-top theatrical style to the proceedings served only to call attention to self-indulgent directorial excesses that failed to expand and illuminate the work in any organic way. The resulting production, riveting in ways Ms. Spector probably never intended, seemed forced and strained, the ludicrous theatricality of the production at constant war with the shimmering theatricality of the script. Sadly, the evening was left with nothing to do but implode from the static pressure of its own pretentious conceits.

The performances, like the production itself, were without subtlety or depth. As Madame, Ms. Spector seemed overwhelmed, alternately shrieking, whispering, and posing - like a high-school Streep playing Cruella DeVil on a bender. Nedra Gallegos as Claire and Janine Miskulin as Solange were likewise so busy with surface emoting that any sense of the pain and bleak despair that would drive these women to escape into a world of fantasy and murder was obliterated by the nearly out-of-control hysteria.

Joanna Conway's predominantly gray and black set, punctuated with groups of stark red and black flowers hanging upside down from the ceiling, might have been interesting if it had been lighted with any evocation of the dark, moody atmosphere that laces through the play. Ms. Conway's and Ms. Spector's costumes were adequate representations of the characters' status and state-of-mind.

Ms. Spector obviously has vision, and as artistic director of Red Poppy Theatre Co. she also has the means to execute it. But by directing and acting on the text as opposed to from it, this version of The Maids came across as a self-congratulatory exercise in cutting-edge theatre carved with a blunt knife, instead of an intelligent production that evolved from a firm respect for the original work's power and soul.
Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 0

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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita