Class strife, incestuous sexual tension, the fine line between fantasy and reality or sanity and insanity: L’Atelier Theatre’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maids is an international gem. Performed in its original French language by European actors, none of the intensity of the play is lost in translation. And what intensity there is.
The play opens on two women, the eponymous maids. Hélène Godec and Laura Lassy Townsend portray Solange and Claire. They are sisters, employed as maids to an imperious mistress and her mysterious husband. Broken down by, if nothing else, years of classist treatment, the sisters take a mad solace in fantasy. They play-act night by night, taking turns dressing up as Madame and hurling insults at themselves, as played by the other sister. But this night is different: their staged fantasies have crept over into reality, and the sisters have successfully framed their master and had him sent to prison. The sisters must grapple with this unfamiliar reality, finding obstacles in their disagreements, their convictions, and an appearance from an equally distraught Madame (Cloé Xhauflaire). Though little actually happens, the intensity of the psychological rabbit hole Genet conjures is enough to keep the audience hooked.
Compared to his popularity in France and much of Europe, Genet is relatively obscure in the United States. However, despite this – or perhaps because of it – Oliver Henzler’s production seeks to emphasize The Maids’ enduring relevance to an audience who may never have heard of it, tapping into political and social rifts. Genet himself was a controversial figure in his life and in his writing. Having been in and out of jail for much of his youth, his first work was written during a prison sentence. Genet was notably drawn to transgressive outsiders. Criminals, like the real-life sister murderess maids who inspired The Maids, often inspired his writing.
Xhauflaire as Madame strikes a haughty, albeit neurotic figure, and her bedroom – which serves as the setting for the entire play – was, according to the cast, inspired by a picture of Ivanka Trump’s closet. Godec as Solange is delightfully unhinged, and the chemistry that Godec and Townsend share amplifies the tension between the sisters, whether it be familial, conspiratorial, or sexual – all of which the actors accomplish with an incredible ferocity.
The decision to keep the play in its original language is an interesting, if not divisive, move. With subtitles translated into English by three Fordham University students, Henzler manages to preserve Genet’s deranged poetry while expanding the audience to Americans. The subtitles also provided the opportunity for French-born actresses Godec and Townsend, as well as Belgian-born Xhauflaire, to tackle the incredibly complex characters in their home language. Godec and Townsend embody the respective roles of Solange and Claire with a passion that captivates regardless of language barrier.
The subtitles, however, can also prove distracting. Genet’s play is heavy and complicated, and if you spend too much time dwelling on the quickly flashing subtitles on the back wall, you might miss the impressive performances of the actors. But as Laura Lassy Townsend commented during the talkback, Genet’s material is difficult to understand even if you are fluent in French. Nevertheless, L’Atelier Theatre’s The Maids is a profound production. As Henzler – and surely Genet – intended, you aren’t so much watching The Maids as The Maids is playing with your mind.