Jean Genet's The Maids is a complex psychological study of power dynamics and confusions between illusion and reality bottled up in a tale of ritualized Sado-masochism. It is laid out as a triangulated power struggle between a conniving social-ladder climbing mistress and her maids.
Oh, joy, it's just the antidote for too much holiday Splenda. This is SantaLand Diaries on steroids.
The title characters are sisters, Solange and Claire -- based on real-life sister murderers. They play dangerous games with one another and with their mistress -- games involving fluid identities, revolving top and bottom roles and poisoned tea, among other diversions.
Glencoe's Writers' Theatre provides a lush background for this remarkably contemporary 60-year old existentialist entertainment. Genet, the real-life prostitute, thief, prison-familiar, Sartreian anti-hero -- of course he was gay -- originally envisioned the three parts played by male actors to add gender to the other confusions.
Mostly the piece is not performed that way, and so it is at Writers' Theatre in the northern suburbs. But what we have under the direction of Jimmy McDermott are three very interesting and talented actresses carving out their own take from a translation by Martin Crimp. This is a first-class production.
Imposing Elizabeth Laidlaw gives Solange/Claire a moltenly stony exterior. She towers over her sister and mistress. Helen Sadler as Claire/Solange is the petite gamine, voluble on the outside, icy cold inside. Eurasian-appearing Niki Lindgren is seemingly unlikely as the self-absorbed social-climber mistress. She is a voluptuous marshmallow on the outside and a beady-eyed hard nugget under the fluff, a cartoonish bon-bon with a bullet at her core.
Around and around they go, like a round of rock/scissors/paper. The sisters take turns playing their mistress. Then the sisters plot to kill their mistress. Or do they? Is the tea really poisoned? The set where this merry-go-round revolves is all pink flowers, dark wood and heavy brocade leavened with breezy light curtains, silhouettes in frames and French postcards tucked into the armoire. You can almost smell waves of musky estrogen washing up with the all the sexual innuendo.
This drama is a challenge not because of the shock value of its endlessly fascinating subject, but because it is wordy and stylized and it all happens in real time. There are no breaks from these freaks. You have to pay attention to keep up. Director McDermott keeps the action moving along nicely around his tiny set. He has his actors using an interesting mix of nuance and broadness of gesture that keeps your eyes on them. Me, I think they need to tone the volume down just a smidge to hit an enviable level of perfection.
Otherwise, for a quietly perverse bit of pleasure, this is a great show. That it takes place in the back of a modest non-chain bookstore is an added pleasure.
"The Maids" is at Writers’ Theatre, 644 Vernon Ave, Glencoe. It runs mostly Tuesdays to Sundays through April 4, 2009. $40 to $65. For tickets and details on the holiday schedule: 847-242-6000 or www.writerstheatre.org.