Does Genet still have the power to provoke? That’s the million-dollar question theatergoers will have the chance to answer not once but twice within the next few weeks as the Chicago area sees two productions of the 1957 French avant-garde classic “The Maids.” First up is director Kate Teichman’s independently produced staging in an abandoned church turned community center in Wicker Park. Jimmy McDermott’s revival for Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe follows next month.
It’s a rare opportunity to compare and contrast simultaneous productions of the same play, but the fact that it’s Genet makes it that much more special.
In any given season, Chicago audiences can expect to overdose on classic American realistic fare (Williams, Inge, Mamet) but the rarely revived—at least in this country—Genet, as well as other challenging works of the European repertoire are usually the exclusive stomping grounds of avant-garde maverick ensembles or theater majors embarking upon their senior theses. There’s a reason for this. More than an acquired taste, audiences are probably right in recognizing that Genet’s plays, with the exception of “The Balcony” and possibly “The Blacks,” are not masterpieces but rather meditations upon a theme—albeit with Genet’s unique blend of subversive theatricality, poetic language and the potential for gorgeous stage imagery.
At its most basic “The Maids” is about two sister-servants (Solange and Claire) secretly indulging in role-playing whenever their mistress is away. They swap master-servant roles during their flights of fantasy, and ritualize these “performances” with gestures and actions that border on the violently masochistic and quasi-religious. Famously, Genet suggested that the servants’ roles be played by men, either because France’s famous thief, pederast and prostitute turned playwright liked to be subversive that way, or because men playing women playing maids playing each other playing their boss, etc, would add to the work’s shock value (circa 1957 Paris) and underscore the reality-illusion theme. These days, of course, men in drag is about as shocking as a gifted writer with a tortured past, and recognizing this, I think, first-time director Teichman, an actor who has worked extensively with Beau O’Reilly’s Curious Theater Branch, is presenting a respectably straight reading of the play staged in a dilapidated church, that gives it an extra atmospheric jolt that the script alone no longer has, and avoids any cross-dressing campiness by casting women. She makes good use of the space. The chapel, with its uninviting salmon-colored and chipped walls, ominous pipe organ and mural backdrop depicting Jesus and the apostles, is a sometimes complimentary but mostly ironic site-specific space for a play making constant religious references and indulging in mock Christian ritual. Unafraid to have fun in the space, Teichman constantly moves her actors on and off the central playing area, up and down aisles and staircases and even out of the auditorium—lending some movement to what is often a static script. As older sister Solange, Laura Rauh has an appropriately dark timber to her voice, as well as beautifully seductive eyes that have a way of maniacally fixating on Laura Wettingfeld’s softer-spoken and more delicate Claire. And although some of Genet’s sisterly-Sapphic overtones have been underplayed here, Rauh and Wettingfled convey a believable sense of shared personal history thanks to a high physical comfort level with one another. Acoustics are sometimes terrible and brief chunks of dialogue are inaudible, but credit needs to be given for this cast’s ability to keep their “characters” straight, for themselves as well as for the audience, amidst all that psychological role-swapping. Still, this truly bare-bones production offering good performances is recommended mainly for Genet admirers and theater geeks. Or as a tasty theatrical appetizer for what will hopefully be Writers’ main-course production. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At Acme Arts Work at St. Paul’s Church, 2215 North Avenue, (773)787-7862. Fri & Sat 7pm (no shows Nov 28 & 29). $10. Through December 13.