Thursday, March 15, 2012

THEATER: The Maids

Photo/Carol Rosegg
Forget Venus in Fur; the real power play is to be found in Red Bull's revival of Jean Genet's savage 1947 drama, The Maids. Claire (Jeanine Serralles) and Solange (Ana Reeder) are sisters in the employ of Madame (J. Smith-Cameron), social prisoners who give their lives meaning by acting out, each night, a spiteful exaggeration of their oblivious mistress, all so that the other sister may pretend to kill her. (Hell hath no fury like a servant scorned?) Penned in by propriety, however, they are unable to exact their true revenge, and each time it seems that they may at last free themselves -- if only in a dream -- the alarm rings, snapping them back to their grim reality.

Jesse Berger's outstanding and intimate direction emphasizes their boundaries by having the audience surround their boxed set; the floor is lushly carpeted, the pillows are plush, and yet the walls, however velvety, are pressing in. But the show's real magic comes from the illusory qualities of Serralles and Reeder, two women often on the verge of disappearing: one moment willowy, the next a fiery iron posed to strike; repressed to the point of mere furniture, dominating one another the next. These two extraordinary actresses are unafraid to plummet through despair all the way to deadly triumph. They're quite well-matched, with Serralles's swift and balletic transitions lifted up by Reeder's boisterous and deliberate sniping, though both grown even further layered when contrasted with the wondrously callous ignorance oozing out of Smith-Cameron's pores.

Berger's ultimate decision to slightly abscond from his otherwise stiflingly effective realism won't satisfy everyone, but the performances and the plights that provoke them will. Whereas other plays about hateful bosses stoop to the relief of comedic catharsis, as in this year's AssistanceThe Maids offers only one true escape: next stop, oblivion.

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