CU Players, Columbia’s theater group that fades in and out of existence, put on a production Jean Genet’s disturbing French drama, The Maids. Intrigued by the intersection of sadism and masochism, Shelley Farmer reviewed the play for Bwog.
The 1947 drama centers on two maids, Claire and Solange, who engage in ritualistic, sadomasochistic “games” while their employer, known only as Madame, is away. In this intimate three-person piece, with repetitive action and dialogue that ranges from ornate to crude, Genet delves into issues of class, power, sexuality, and gendered performance. In a production of both intelligence and beauty, CU Players approaches these themes with insight and feeling, while also offering a thrilling aesthetic experience.
The show’s design choices were bold, with absolute professionalism and artistic daring in every aspect of the production. The gorgeous set by Elsa Gibson-Braden was simple yet expressive: a rack of clothing and trunk resided onstage (providing the actors with costumes for their games) and a large white-framed window stood upstage center, draped with red velvet curtains. Her coup, however, was a blood red floor (perhaps a first for the Lerner Black Box Theater) that established the room as a violent, erotically charged feminine space reminiscent of the house in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Kate Offerdahl’s costumes beautifully complemented and contrasted with the set’s color schemes, illustrated the class distinctions central to the piece, and evoked the work’s period origins while also feeling contemporary.
While Mark King’s sound design seemed to aim for manic excitement in the opening scene, the effect came across as somewhat messy and sacrificed clarity that would have been beneficial to the audience at the beginning of the play. The show’s later sound cues, however, were both jolting and poignant, and King must be commended for his use of clock effects, which created a sense of momentum and inevitability. Special mention must also be made of Aramael Andres Pena-Alcantara’s lighting design. While his designs for various moments were extremely evocative and strikingly different, the transitions between cues were absolutely seamless, and guided the audience unconsciously between the play’s wildly divergent moods.
All of these design elements were not only beautiful in their own right, but perfectly supported the performance’s striking direction and performances. Director Julien Hawthorne has embraced the play’s use of ritualized gesture and expanded it into an overriding aesthetic, even outside of the context of the maids’ “games.” Every gesture made was extremely specific, with bodies carefully placed in relation to each other within the space to both create a compelling image and wring as much meaning as possible from each movement. The vocal performances were directed with equal specificity, featuring interesting play with tempo and pitch.
The strength of direction was evident in the uniformly strong cast, featuring Juliette Kessler as Claire, Laura Fisher as Madame, and the brilliant Gabrielle Beans as Solange. Most of the play’s impact rests on the interactions between Claire and Solange, and the women played well off each other. Kessler seemed a bit less comfortable with the stylized physicality and occasionally became shrill and one-note in her vocal performance. Her quiet moments, however, had a lovely naivete and vulnerability. As Solange, Beans offered a performance of versatility, humor, power, and fragility. Her delivery of the stylized blocking was fluid and natural, while her vocal performance was both powerful and nuanced. The variety of the performance was thrilling—she was consistently present, which made all of her choices feel both surprising and inevitable.
In their program notes, dramaturgs Naomi Boyce and Jessica Castro offer an interesting response to Genet’s desire that the play be cast with male actors. They acknowledge that they considered this approach and respect the radical alienation effect that would occur, with male actors highlighting the piece’s exploration of the performance of sex and gender. However, they write that they ultimately found it unfair as female theater-makers to deny women the opportunity to portray these incredibly rich, complex roles. This reviewer also felt a jolt of discomfort at times: in the play’s exploration of female envy, the importance of beauty, and the strictures of feminine social performance, coupled with the actresses’ physical exposure and puppet-like movement, there was occasionally an uncomfortable awareness of the male director behind these choices. However, rather than detracting from the experience, this discomfort adds another level of interest to a thought-provoking work. For audiences hungry for a challenging theatrical experience, or who merely want to experience the thoughtfulness and talent of their fellow students, CU Players’ production of The Maids is a must-see.
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