Monday, August 29, 2011

The Maids Review

The Maids

Review by Lee Bemrose

(Photo by Joe Calleri)

This was one of the oddest plays I've seen in a while – not the least because I went in pretty blind as to what I was about to see. I don't really remember what initially interested me. It was on at La Mama. It looked like a bit of a dark comedy. The promo shots hinted at something a bit strange; might be worth checking out.

Basically, The Maids by Frenchman Jean Genet follows the story of a couple of maids playing naughty power games in their mistress' absence. They dress up in her clothes, wear her make-up, mimic and tease, both her and each other. Their game escalates until they dare themselves to murder her. She returns, almost discovers what the mice have been up to while the cat's away and... well I've already given away too much.

Although this is a one act play, it is constructed of three parts. There is the opening revelation of the curious nature of the maids followed by the return of the mistress, followed by what happens next when the mistress leaves again.

There is something strange about this production right from the start. The two maids, Solange and Claire, are played by male actors Matt Crosby and Ben Rogan. There's nothing wrong with seeing gender played by opposites, but in this case it was strange because... well because it was all very obvious. Matt and Ben are very masculine men playing very feminine roles, but in a very over-the-top way; women cast in these same roles would have played the parts very differently, I feel. There's a self-consciousness about it which adds to the feeling that all is not as it seems.

Looking around at the faces in the intimate space of La Mama, I did see a few staring on occasion into the middle distance rather than the actors on stage who frequently rubbed shoulders with the audience. There were jokes which occasionally raised quiet laughs, and there was this constant, unsettling feel about the thing. Why have male actors playing female roles? Why this campness? And what, exactly, was going on here?

In what is basically the second act, the limelight is stolen by Butoh and burlesque star Yumi Umiumare. This is also over-the-top camp, but somehow, suddenly, there is electricity. Yumi's Mistress is a loud Japanese pop-punk drama queen who struts, demands respect (the maids have become suddenly subservient in her presence after being so bold in her absence), and she also demands answers. What has been going on in her absence? Why these misplaced objects? Why traces of her make-up in unexpected places? Much of her barked sentences trail dismissively into Japanese, making her dominance even more comical.

The plot to undo the mistress is thwarted and as she leaves for what is basically the third act, the maids resume their power games, but with added edge.

Unfortunately, once Yumi left the stage, a bit of that middle-distance gazing came over again, and this third section felt a little too long. I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one present who thought okay, I've seen the fun bit, let's get this over and done with.

Discussion afterwards between plus one and myself was along the lines of the opening line of this review. It is an odd, unsettling play. It's a play from a bygone time. I don't think it's timeless or even relevant to our times. I do thinking acting from all three cast members was very good. I am curious to see another production of this play because I'm not sure why gender came into this... although it was certainly about power and dominance, both of which often dance with gender and the roles we have to play. (Note – in reading about The Maids after writing this review it seems the playwright himself wanted male actors, so this production is being true to the spirit of the thing).

Like I said, one of the oddest plays I've seen in a while. Not entirely a bad thing.

Season Over.


Pure Gin! said...

Ooo I've seen Yumi before, dancing; nutty and beautiful. This play sounds intriguing...

Lee said...

It was intriguing. Grew on me somewhat. I'd probably see another production out of curiosity. Definitely want to see Yumi again.