‘The Maids’ probes at darker side of domestic servitude

Lili Bierer ’19 and Christine Nyce ’19 play sisters and housemaids Claire and Solange, bent on killing their mistress until their obsession consumes them. Photo courtesy of Marshall Borrus.
Lili Bierer ’19 and Christine Nyce ’19 play sisters and housemaids Claire and Solange, bent on killing their mistress until their obsession consumes them. Photo courtesy of Marshall Borrus.

The Maids is hard to sit through. It’s tense, it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable — but you can’t help but watch closely and apprehensively to the end. That’s the framing paradox, and just one of many, that makes up Jean Genet’s play, directed by Claire Bergey ’17 for Cap & Bells’ fall season and running from Nov. 3 to Nov. 5 at the Adams Memorial Theatre in the ’62 Center.

The play’s premise is simple: two housemaids, sisters, plan to murder their mistress by poisoning her. The interim, the sisters’ cunning and derailed,  violent, imaginative scheme, make up the plot of The Maids. Before the play begins, we, the audience, get a sense of desertion or impersonality from the set, which is starkly lit and framed by six mirrored walls. The furniture is mid-century modern, with a molded plastic Eames chair, a simple desk and a minimal chaise lounge that do not rotate. It is clean, but sterile and unfeeling.

Claire, played by Lili Bierer ’19, opens the performance, wearing a red satin dress. The way she talks down spitefully to Solange, played by Christine Nyce ’19, implies that she is the mistress:

“Lean forward and look at yourself in my shoes. Do you think I find it pleasant to know that my foot is shrouded by the veils of your saliva?”

Solange abides willingly, submissively — until Claire snidely remarks that she’ll never be able to seduce Mario the milkman. Solange lashes back aggressively, and it is unclear what the two women’s relationship is. How dare the maid talk back to her mistress? We soon realize that they are the two maids and that they are roleplaying, taking turns to play the maid and the mistress, the submissive and the dominant. It’s a stifling, sadomasochistic roleplay Claire and Solange revel in and repeat, switching roles and planning their murder for the rest of the play. It’s a dynamic that doesn’t seem to make sense; the maids want to kill Madame (Jaya Mallela ’20), their mistress, but they also want so badly to be her.

The Maids is a menacing slow burn of a drama, and its running time of 90 minutes is both a strength and a weakness, though inescapable at that. It is important that Claire and Solange’s bitter, problematic relationship is set up properly to contrast with their relationship with Madame, but the maids’ exchanges get tedious, especially since Madame doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the play. But perhaps Genet and Bergey knew this, and exploit the tension provided by these paradoxes to frustrate us and propel the play forward.

Lurking in the background is the excellent sound work by Scott Daniel ’17. At times it is sharply piercing, reminiscent of a persistent ringing in your ears or a steady clang of a steam radiator. Other times, it floods over you with a deep, shaking bass. Whatever the case, the sound definitely augments the cold dialogue of the play in an original way. However, as far as specific effects go, the sound of the phone and alarm clock ringing not coming from the objects themselves feels fake and detached.

The plot builds up to the maids eventually failing to kill Madame, but perhaps the play’s loitering in this agitation is its point.

Bierer’s and Nyce’s performances carry the play when the plot drags. In one scene where the phone rings, Bierer delicately picks up the phone with both hands, almost scared to answer. She conveys the perfect sense of conflicted fear that seems to fuel the maids’ irrational violence. There are also hints at sexual tension between the two that can’t be overlooked; their back and forth adds to the ferocity of their violent exasperation. During a roleplay wherein Solange helps Claire put on her dress, she quips, “Don’t pull so hard. Don’t try to bind me.”

Both Claire and Solange pretend to be Madame, but then at night go back to their folding cots. It’s the kind of game that can drive one insane, which I think it does. “Nobody loves me! Nobody loves us!” Solange shouts after one of these roleplays. The aggression in her voice is pointed, and it shows her hurt, on the verge of break.

As the frustration toward each other builds, Claire screams, breaking the tension. Unfortunately the outburst does feel a little strained and contrived, but only because it is at odds with how previously uninflected and cold the maids are toward each other.

It’s hard to separate the maids’ roleplaying, wherein either Claire or Solange is made to hate the other sister who is playing Madame, from their frustration with each other for not being able to kill Madame. Perhaps some of that hatred bleeds over, and it makes us wonder what would have happened if Madame was actually killed. Would Solange have turned on Claire? Would things have returned to normal? What is normal, though?

Nyce does bring the sinister in her performance as Solange. In the scene after Claire fails to serve Madame her poisoned tea, Solange stands over Claire, a large shadow is projected on the curtain behind her. A repeating, circuitous bass loops gently crowds the background as the sisters argue. Nyce’s character kneels, a green and yellow light (courtesy of lighting director Gabe Wexler ’19) cast over her face. We shift in our seats.

In a monologue toward the end of the play, we see Nyce emerge back on stage, her hair wet and let down. There is a purplish-red light and a slow humming, throbbing sound. Solange imagines herself as “Mademoiselle Solange,” having killed Madame and her sister. But she still repeats “Madame” so frequently, so obsessively, that it almost punctuates her sentences, giving an overbearing rhythm to her crazed monologue.

“I might say cruel things but I can be kind,” Solange says. We don’t really believe it. Or perhaps she might convince us she is kind until she kills us too. Nyce plays a terrifying Solange in that we never quite know if she is unstable; or completely stable and manipulative.

In Genet’s original text for the play, he does stipulate that the maids are around 30 to 35, and that the Madame is about 25. It’s a shame we don’t get the sense that the maids are older here — which would be hard to do — as the fact that they are serving a younger mistress would definitely add a layer to their hardened, resentful demeanors.

The play ends as it begins, with Claire and Solange, but this time their roles are reversed. Solange has Claire drink her tea — we don’t know if it is poisoned or not — as she closes the play rejoicing at their freedom from Madame. But we’re also unclear if this is a roleplay. There is no resolution, really.