Role-playing ‘Maids’ serve dangerously erotic tea

They served tea.

Williams College Immediate Theatre’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maids was, in so many ways, an intimate affair. The motivation behind the reservation-only seating was probably practical – the venue, Agard living room, only held about 20 seats – but it also made for a swanky introduction to the piece. Stage manager Christine Case ’13 and Abbi Davies ’13, who played the maid Claire, served as gracious bouncers and tea-servers at the door. Having an entire house backstage added a valuable dimension to the play – when the maids later got down to some naughty business, I got nervous when I heard the footsteps of an Agard resident above: What if someone walked in?

Immediate Theatre made solid use of its limited resources in dressing the stage. (Dressing is, actually, an appropriate word to use here, as the show takes place in “Madame’s boudoir.”) Everything gave the impression of French bourgeois hospitality or, at least, of an imagined French bourgeois hospitality that seemed nice to this provincial Massachusetts native. While the designers did a very respectable job under the tricky budget constraints, the entrance ofthe maids’ employer Madame, played by Liz Hecht ’13, in a luxuriant fur coat, caused me to wonder why she kept that cheap-looking white sequined dress in her clothing rotation. Regardless, the piece’s intended period and the household’s social class were not quite as necessarily clear.

The show opened with, as you might expect, French maids doing French-maid-type things. Holly Crane ’12, as Solange, signaled the show’s start with a bit of unabashedly cute stage business, feather dusting the furniture, the lights and most audience members. From there, the situation became messier. Claire entered, removed her maid’s outfit and sat in front of the mirror in a slip. Charged with a less-than-innocent energy, she berated Solange, her sister. The two sisters engaged in dominant-submissive role-playing, Claire acting as Madame and Solange as herself, with all the connotations of the term “role play” remaining intact.

Davies’ voice expanded throughout and beyond the room, creating a striking effect within the small space. It promptly established Claire’s intense desire for dominance. Her fluttery and self-conscious body language was not, however, entirely congruous with this well-grounded voice. Davies’ interpretation of Claire’s was intelligently done. She is a maid just like her sister, and so probably would be insecure in some sort of power play. But again, the vocal aspect of this part of Davies’s performance proved so effective that I wished her movements were similarly clear, direct and focused.

Perhaps this is just the gripe of a distractible audience member, but I also had trouble pinning down Claire and Solange’s relationship. Of course, the opening of the play should be disorienting; playwrights don’t use incestuous French-maid-dominatrix scenes to put the audience at ease. At the same time, even after intellectually unwrapping the text, Claire and Solange did not seem to have the conspiratorial camaraderie typically expected from French-maid sisters and role-playing partners.

Again, as much as the nature of that sort of relationship demands performativity, there were spots when I felt that the onslaught of Genet’s well-delivered text could have been tempered by a clearer sense of communion between Davies and Crane. The script, though not long, was wordy – these were rhetorically inclined maids. This is not to say that the show’s theatrical moments were not beautiful. Crane’s performance was especially strong in this regard: At one point, her speech rhythms reached the tempo of a beat-poetry performance artist. Her physicalization and use of the space were impressively dynamic. Though every once in a while the piece edged towards poetry-slam territory, in Crane’s hands, it was admittedly very cool poetry.

Hecht’s performance provided an effective counterpoint. Her comparatively brief appearance came at just the right moment. Her performance, while not light, was crisp. Her character choices were strong and coherent. Hecht’s Madame was, exactly as her two servants made her out to be, a captivating combination of the pleasant and the unpleasant. Though Madame is maybe less substantive than her servants, her arrival made sense of all that came before. As Genet wrote, “It’s easy to be nice … when you’re rich.”

All of that aside, the production was like what I’d imagine sitting down to a meal at Madame’s table would be like: Some courses were saucy, some heavy and some just right. I walked away from the table full, satisfied and maybe a little queasy.

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