The Maids | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Maids, Exigent Theatre, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Violence has its own sacraments for convict-bard Jean Genet. His 75-minute 1947 drama climaxes with a sadomasochistic "equalizing" ceremony: two maids, sisters who share a nightly ritual of dressing up as their mistress and her servant, play these parts one last time, a game that ends in death. This seemingly inevitable sacrifice comes about when they fail to implicate their mistress in a criminal conspiracy and she leaves the home, spoiling their fun by giving them the dresses they've been stealing every evening. They then turn their class hatred on each other (though the murders that inspired this one-act, perpetrated by the Papin sisters in 1933, were not sidetracked by suicidal impulses).

Genet employs his most gorgeous prose (presented here in Martin Crimp's sparkling 1999 translation) to elaborate on the sisters' nightly impersonation of their betters. When the maids are played by men, as Genet intended, the contrast between their drag mannerisms and his delicate dialogue can be delicious. But in Exigent Theatre's inaugural production, deftly directed by Alex Burns, the female cast works well too, preventing any confusion about the class issues by eliminating the sexual simulations.

Laura Grey and Mattie Hawkinson aptly convey the toxic familiarity of sisters who fuel each other's grievances. And though the dialogue is potent enough, Burns's blocking offers a dance of desperation that can only end in frozen horror. As the mistress, Karen Thornton exudes a witches' brew of clueless condescension and effortless glamour.

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