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Not French Enough

Writers' Theatre's The Maids fails to combine sex and philosophy with that certain je ne sais quoi.

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The Maids Writers' Theatre'

The French get off on philosophy. I mean sexually. Their penseurs aren't rumpled like ours are. Some of them, like Albert Camus or Bernard-Henri Lévy, are positively dashing. Even ugly old Jean-Paul Sartre had a reputation as a cocksman. Look at Auguste Rodin's sculpture, The Thinker—all nude and sinewy, with his mouth pressed up against his own fingers—and then imagine what Rodin might have done with the same subject had he been American. You pictured a statue of Einstein in a cardigan, didn't you?

But it isn't just the thinkers, it's the thoughts. The French appreciate the steaminess of a well-shaped idea in a way we generally don't. Case in point: The Maids, Jean Genet's 1947 tale of sex, crime, perversion, betrayal, and philosophy, now receiving a fierce but overly earnest production at the Writers' Theatre.

Genet's own tale had many of the same elements as the play. A bastard, given up for adoption as a baby and packed off to a reformatory as a teen, he spent most of his first four decades either in jail or doing what was required to get there. He was a thief, a vagrant, a prostitute, and a sexual criminal by virtue of his homosexuality. But he also became a writer, and, perhaps more important, a persona: the existential outlaw. Sartre, Jean Cocteau, and others picked up on him, made him their Neal Cassady, and stepped in to save him when he was on the verge of going to prison for a life term.

The Maids was Genet's first play. It opens in a posh bedroom occupied by two women—one called Claire, dressed in a modest black-and-white maid's uniform, the other, addressed as the Mistress, wearing only a slip. Arrogant and verbally abusive, the Mistress rips into Claire as Claire helps her dress. Before long, however, it becomes evident that Claire isn't just a proletarian punching bag. She makes an odd stand in favor of the red gown, forbidding the Mistress to wear the white. The balance of power between the two women seesaws strangely, as if there's a subtext we haven't been let in on.

This might be August Strindberg territory—an exploration of the power of the servant over the served. But it's not that simple. Genet's hidden far more than a subtext (and here, be warned, I'm going to tell you something you may not want to know if you're unfamiliar with the play). As it turns out, the Claire we meet in this initial passage isn't the real Claire—although she is a maid—and the Mistress isn't the real Mistress. Claire is actually Solange, Claire's sister, and the woman she calls the Mistress is Claire. The two are immersed in a "ceremony" they've obviously played out many times before, taking turns in the Mistress role. The particular permutation we're witnessing allows the real Claire to symbolically subjugate herself along with Solange. She's a sadist who's also her own victim.

And that's just the beginning. The maids have penetrated so deeply into this psychic maze of identification and revulsion, loyalty and treachery, love and contempt—both for their employer and for themselves, the difference between the two having become jumbled in their imaginations—that they've started taking it for reality. Acting on their shared delusion, they've initiated a household coup, denouncing the Mistress's husband in a letter to the police. The plan is flimsy, though, and when Claire and Solange find out the husband is to be released for lack of evidence, they know the jig is up. They spend the rest of the play trying to cope with their imminent expulsion from the sick Eden in their heads.

All of this is presented with a very French combination of exalted language, profound irony, and heightened arousal. Especially when they're in the throes of their ceremonial ecstasies, Claire and Solange use a diction that straddles poetry and trashy romance novels. "My jet of spit is my pray of diamonds," declares Solange, in the Martin Crimp translation used here by director Jimmy McDermott. Paradox is Genet's prime trope. Everything is filth and adoration, sangfroid and heaving bosoms, stupid plots and dazzling fantasies, hard slaps and the delicate slipping on of fabulous shoes. The mistress-maid relationship, in short, taken to its ultimate, absurd conclusion—and then further charged with the hothouse sexuality of two sisters involved in something very... complicated.

McDermott seems to know what's in the bundle of contradictions that is The Maids. His production acknowledges the play's philosophic and erotic elements. But it can't seem to handle them both at once. This is especially evident in the long opening passage, in which Claire and Solange play their first, fraught game of Mistress and Maid using a wonderfully ridiculous red gown by Rachel Anna Healy. Helen Sadler, in particular, never gives a sense of getting a thrill out of the game. She plays Claire with an intensity that says, We're dealing with some big ideas here, and I for one am not going to get distracted from them. Which, of course, banishes the sexiness that's absolutely necessary to expressing those big ideas.

Elizabeth Laidlaw generates some heat as Solange, but the overall atmosphere is grim—at least until Niki Lindgren shows up as the real Mistress. Interestingly, Lindgren has a background in comedy (she's been a member of the Second City E.T.C. ensemble), and she brings a playfulness to her role that lends the show a welcome frisson. But not enough to make it French.v

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