As the run of Death of Salesman has just come to a close, I’m now immersed in non-stop rehearsals of Genet’s The Maids. My roles couldn’t be more different. I’ve gone from playing Howard Wagner, the uptight, “business is business” boss who fires poor Willie Loman and now “Madame,” Jean Genet’s haughty, exaggeration of the mistress of the twisted servants in his absurdist nightmare, The Maids.
Though few would mention Death of Salesman and The Maids in the same sentence, they have much in common: Both are classics, dealing in profound ways with fundamental human conflicts. Both have been performed innumerable times by some of the theater’s most respected actors. (The Maids recently had an acclaimed performance starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert). Both plays explore how the relationship between master and servant, boss and underling, owner and worker, warps the humanity of all concerned. Both, though in very different ways, have important threads of sexuality at their core. Both are vitally concerned with how the disturbing aspects of parental figures wreak havoc on those who depend on them. Both deal with death by suicide.
And both are theatrically adventurous plays. Not only did they break new ground when they originally appeared, but both continue to challenge audiences with powerful emotions amidst a complex, shifting reality.
If Salesman sometimes blurs the line at times between fantasy and reality, The Maids disrupts our sense of reality almost entirely. Are the maids insane or is their mistress? Or are all the characters lost in unreal worlds? At one point Madame says, “You both must be quite mad…unless you’re saying that I am.” No one is sane in this play. If Salesman deals world in which decent people are crushed by the harsh realities of business, The Maids contends with an unreal world in which human cruelty is all too real and pervasive. Where Salesman deals with the consequences of infidelity, The Maids raises the yet more disturbing sexual issues of incestuous love and hatred.
The Maids, particularly as performed by VTC’s ensemble directed by Josh Moyse, plays with sexual identity. Genet originally conceived of the maids’ roles being played by young boys, though most productions have had these roles played by women. The current production twists gender identity by having two young people, one male and one female, play the maids with a male playing the maids’ mistress, Madame.
This is a new experience. Though I briefly played a transvestite in an off-off-broadway comedy revue, in The Maids I’m playing Madame as a man playing a woman. The way I envision the role is neither the Shakespearean attempt to create the illusion that I am a woman nor as a gay cross-dresser a la La Cage Aux Folles. What I’m going for here is the jarring effect of someone who is obviously male playing a role that is obviously female. To me, this fits perfectly with the absurdist aesthetic. Since the master-servant relationship is commonly, in our culture, a male-dominated relationship, my “maleness,” hopefully, amplifies the perversion of human interaction that is the relationship between the mistress and her servants.
Genet’s The Maids is a study in how far human relationships can be perverted by differences of wealth and status. Power and impotence, love and hatred, adoration and disgust, delight and revulsion, are tightly intermingled. Each of the three characters is both victimizer and victim, abuser and abused, dominator and dominated.
As an actor and, hopefully, for an audience, what could be more fun? All is exposed, laid bare with crushing simplicity. A brilliant set design and visual projections transform Hooker-Dunham theater in Brattleboro, Vermont, into a jewel box dollhouse, perfect for the discordant, clashing realities that mirror than twisted minds of the mistress and her maids.
The Maids opens Friday, October 25 and continues Saturday, Oct. 26, Sunday, Oct. 27, Thursday, October 31 (Perfect for Halloween!), Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, November 1 thru 3. All except Sundays are evenings at 7:30; Sundays are matinees at 3. Hooker-Dunham theater, 139 Main St., Brattleboro, Vermont.