The Artistic Home’s drag version of The Maids . . . drags | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

The Artistic Home’s drag version of The Maids . . . drags 

The show runs out of provocations too soon.

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Joe Mazza

Solange and Claire are sisters and servants, attending to the needs of the young woman known to them as "Madame." They're also nuts. What's made them that way is an interesting question, the answer to which may or may not be embedded in the gambits they act out during The Maids, Jean Genet's 1947 succes de scandale, getting a less than successful revival now at the Artistic Home.

When Madame is away, the sisters raid her boudoir. One becomes Madame herself, dressing up in her clothes, jewelry, and makeup. The other retains her usual work livery. Then they perform their private play about a haughty mistress and her sado-masochistic maid. Insinuations are made, orders given, insults hurled, slaps tendered. There's cruelty and groveling and not a little erotic heat. At the height of the proceedings, the maid—who may be Solange or Claire or Claire in the role of Solange or Solange in the role of Claire—kills "Madame." Or would, if time allowed. The real Madame always seems to return just as they're about to reach the big climax.

Solange and Claire's game/ceremony/tryst looks at first like an amusingly sick way to blow off some working-class steam. But that's not how things turn out. Carried away by the forces they've let loose within themselves—their anger, their fantasies, their desire to punish and be punished—the sisters have written anonymously to the police, denouncing Madame's husband for crimes Genet never enumerates. When this flimsy plan falls apart, they know the jig is up and the game takes on a mortal urgency.

Genet based The Maids on a notorious 1933 case concerning a pair of French sister housemaids, Christine and Léa Papin, who murdered their employer's wife and daughter. The crime was attributed to the influence of strong-minded Christine over susceptible Léa, and some of that dynamic survives in Claire and Solange. But Genet takes their relationship well beyond sibling issues, making their constantly changing dialectic of power and subjugation vibrate with social, economic, artistic, and sexual implications—not to say implications for the construction of identity and of reality itself. In his introduction to the published version of the script, Jean-Paul Sartre says Genet sets "being and appearance" spinning so that the discrete categories we depend on blur into one another. "Genet constructs such whirligigs by the hundred," Sartre writes. "They become his favorite mode of thinking."

Sartre goes on to suggest that Genet wanted to make a whirligig of gender, too, citing a remark from his Our Lady of the Flowers: "If I were to have a play put on in which women had roles, I would demand that these roles be played by adolescent boys, and I would bring this to the attention of the spectators by means of a placard which would remain nailed to the right or left of the sets during the entire performance." And, indeed, though its world-premiere cast consisted of three women (Sartre says it was a concession to the director), there have been plenty of Maids with men in various styles and degrees of drag.

For his Artistic Home staging, Michael Conroy has chosen to mix things up to the extent that Madame is played by Brookelyn Hebert, who presents unambiguously as a woman, while Claire and Solange are embodied by drag artists Patience Darling and Hinkypunk respectively. What we see for most of the show's 90-minute running time are two lean, tallish people in extravagant face makeup transitioning back and forth between ball gowns and the tastefully kinkified maid uniforms created by costume designer Zachery Wagner.

Claire and Solange's mask-like look has important uses. With a single stroke it emphasizes the surreality of their dress-up game, the hermetic nature of their relationship, their outsider status in the world—and, in the presence of Hebert's Madame, both the hopelessness of trying to emulate her and the comic irony that at a certain level of their consciousness they're way more fabulous than she is.

Trouble is, the makeup has to stay on for the duration, which means that points made in the first few minutes become the sum total of what we take away from the entire experience. Provocations offered at the start are repeated in paler and paler iterations. Abetted by some limited, tentative performances, Conroy's bold concept backfires, and the whirligig stops.

Well, maybe not entirely. There's a moment late in the play when Hinkypunk's Solange gets a glimpse beyond her folie a deux, recognizes the inevitability of what's to come next for her and her little sister, and gives in to it. For that moment we're entirely beyond avant-garde gestures of the past or present, looking at human pain.   v

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