theater (reviews)

review: the maids

The Maids

by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman
Directed by Jesse Berger
Featuring Ana Reeder, Jeanine Serrales, J. Smith-Cameron
Red Bull Theater @ St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street
March 6, 2012 — April 1, 2012 [opening March 15, 2012]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 13, 2012

(L-R) J. Smith-Cameron, Jeanine Serralles, Ana Reeder. Image by Carol Rosegg.

I have seen productions of The Maids that are spare and intentionally stilted and rigidly presentational that amuse the eye and resonate only superficially.The depth of the emotional journeys we take can be curtailed (intentionally or unintentionally) by the directorial, design, and acting choices made as with any work. In the current Red Bull Theater production at St. Clement’s, the design choices (set, costume, sound — or lack of sound), the rhythms and charismatic power of the actresses, the direction all combine for a powerful evening.

Maids Claire (Jeanine Serralles) and Solange (Ana Reeder) in a well-to-do French household headed by Madame (J. Smith-Cameron) engage in role play to assuage their boredom, their psychoses, their politics. We never know the reasons for their discontent, we just know that it is powerfully extant. We are reminded in this play of the power staff members hold, as we are reminded in movies such as Gosford Park (2001) about early 20th century British estate holders and in the The Help (2011) about the Civil Rights era American south. While Gosford Park gives us a murder mystery and interpersonal shenanigans in the British class system and The Help provides a link between races to further a civil rights cause, the action of The Maids was inspired in theme by a notorious murder of a mistress and her child by the household maids in the 1930s. Genet’s play was first produced in French in 1947, in English in 1956, and provides no murders of the flesh but psychological gamesmanship on stage. The action places us in the middle of a sessions of play between the maids, where one plays the mistress (complete with donning one of her elegant evening dresses), sequences with the mistress herself, and the maids again, play acting roles dictated by society, by their own scripts, by convention.

No human beings are murdered in The Maids but psyches are coddled and  battered, and true emotions evoked and displayed on the tiny St. Clement’s stage. Serralles’s Claire is tempestuous and controlling as pretend Madame, and contrite and subservient in her maid’s uniform. Reeder’s Solange plays a version of Claire-as-maid-in-role-play that is entrancing, and a dominatrix at play’s end that is so convincing we suspect for a time that she has succeeded in the Madame-killing the young women have dreamed about for so long.

Costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti are flexible, easily don-able and doff-able, and visually striking. Set design by Dane Laffrey places the audience on all four sides of the small performance space, peering at the action through windows carved out of the set walls. Some actions are obscured by set pieces or body positions but direction by Jesse Berger is well choreographed to provide audience members seated at all angles claim to some essential small actions, and access to all the larger movements in the piece.  Sound design by Brandon Wolcott provides historical contextually jazzy-swing music, and almost total silence (the better to focus on the words) during the spoken scenes.

I am heartened to see that dramaturg Mirabelle Ordinaire receives a front page credit along with the other primary design and production personnel. Her informative essay “About the Play” in the playbill provides essential context for the general and specialized audience member.  In future productions, let me point out that it would be appropriate for Ms. Ordinaire and any other dramaturg to receive a production biography along with the other personnel.  (And yes I am a dramaturg and a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.)

A worthy, intense, focused, and brave production of an intense, focused, and brave play.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 18, 2012)

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