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THE MAIDS, Rising Sun Theatre, at Center Theater. In Jean Genet's black comedy the title characters are vengeful sisters who begin by imitating their mistress and end by attempting to kill her. Based on a true story, Genet's sadomasochistic account depicts petulant Claire and bitter Solange as vaguely incestuous, transparently self-hating, and consumed by jealousy of their lady's lover. In a "ceremony" of abasement, they take turns dressing in Madame's finery, painting their cheeks, and reviling the sister designated the maid that night. Poisoning Madame's tea becomes just another ritual. Ironically the real Madame is no hateful harridan but capriciously generous. Genet's sardonic point: the maids require their Madame, because hating her ("Her joy feeds on our shame") gives them purpose.

Genet intended all three roles to be played by men, a wish ignored in the original 1947 production but frequently respected since. Rising Sun Theatre offers an all-female show. In Allison Prouty's staging, the sisters' S-M games seem woefully tentative, but their alternations between wallowing in servitude and aping respectability remain intact. Prudence Heyert's complex Claire both relishes her dangerous fantasies and dreads their disintegration--the time when she can no longer believe in them. Playing the simpler and more vengeful Solange, Gwyneth Langford Dobson conveys a coffinful of buried passions. Nicola Fordwood communicates the simpering Madame's inanity but never takes her situation into pathos.

--Lawrence Bommer

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