Whatever we profess proficiency in, we all have gaps in our professional or cultural knowledge. Jean Genet’s plays are one of mine; with all I’ve heard about them over the years, I’d never till now managed to see one. So my impressions of Sonnet Repertory Theatre‘s new production of The Maids is a fresh one, unblessed (or unencumbered) by comparisons with productions past, or by pronouncements on the quality of Bernard Frechtman’s translation from the French.
Monique Coleman as “Claire”, Rosa Arredondo as “Madame” and Chinasa Ogbuagu as “Solange” in “The Maids”. Photo by Rachael Shane
Sisters Solange and Claire, maidservants to a wealthy society woman known only as Madame, live in a Tennessee Williams-style miasma of class entrapment. Resentful of their apparently inescapable social debasement as members of a docile servant class, they play-act schemes of revenge and murder whenever Madame is away. Genet’s first twist is to begin with one of these parodies, resulting in a long first scene that suggests to the unsuspecting theatergoer he is in for a Very Bad Play.
When the sisters break character and become the real Solange and Claire we relievedly learn that we are in the presence of some very fine onstage talent. The play goes on to careen between, on the one hand, familial conversation that’s casually phrased (if heavily laden with feeling), and on the other, very elevated language. Genet’s script tasks older sister Solange with speaking much of the latter, and Chinasa Ogbuagu handles it all with just about as much wit and smooth skill as one could hope for. Younger sister Claire, emotionally submissive to Solange and ostensibly the weaker one, flowers as the story progresses, with Monique Coleman (High School Musical) conveying with cool dexterity her blossoming into a curious kind of half-helpless power.
Chinasa Ogbuagu as “Solange” and Monique Coleman as “Claire” in “The Maids”. Photo by Rachael Shane
When Madame herself eventually appears, played by Rosa Arredondo in a performance delicately balanced between the florid and the restrained, the New Orleans milieu becomes clear. Despite the transposition of place, though, it’s still the 1940s, as expressed in Madame’s wardrobe and the details of the impressive bedroom set. (The program specifies the locale as an apartment in the historic Pontalba Buildings of Jackson Square). But while the atmosphere may look back to Tennessee Williams and the postwar years, the sisters’ quandary is an ancient one, as least as old as Hamlet’s: They can’t act, they can only play-act.
In fact the script centers on the sisters’ role-playing, one (Claire in the scenes we’re privy too) taking the role of Madame, and Solange, to complicate things further for the audience, that of the “overwhelmed” Claire. The latter, unlike her supremely resentful older sister, feels conflicted over having some actual affection for Madame. The effect of the plays-within-the-play is one of inescapable theatrical strangeness.
Until the end, pretty much nothing actually happens. A plot by the sisters to undermine Madame leads to developments that only boost their feelings of helplessness and lead to a final desperate act. But rarely if ever have more time and angst been expended over the course of making a bed, such drama distilled into taking off and putting on shoes. Those are the carriages of the real action.
The artistry of the play seems incomplete to me, mainly because the maids are written partly as real people, partly as exemplars of class frustration and struggle. The show left me impressed with the quality of the talent and the production, and caught up in the beauty of some of the language. But it also left me with confusion that only gradually dissipated on reflection. I can’t tell you whether it was it a fair first theatrical go-round with Genet.
I can say The Maids is an interesting, well-performed 80 minutes. It runs through Dec. 1 at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Visit the Sonnet Repertory Theatre website for tickets.