The Maids/Creature Features Theatre | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Maids/Creature Features Theatre 

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THE MAIDS

Heartland Players
at the Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre

Appearance, which is constantly on the point of passing itself off as reality, must constantly reveal its profound unreality. Everything must be so false it sets our teeth on edge. --Jean-Paul Sartre on Jean Genet's theatrical procedure

Ideally in Jean Genet's theater all the women's roles would be played by men--a choice influenced not so much by his sexual orientation as his delight in artifice, a delight that drew him to the stage in the first place. One of Genet's main objectives, according to his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre, was to "strike at the root of the apparent." In Genet's black comedy The Maids, his characters drop into and out of roles and rituals, love and abuse, at such dizzying speeds that when a scheme of murder is introduced it's difficult to ascertain the intended victim and whether the act stems from cold brutality or slavish devotion.

The maids are Claire and Solange, incestuous sisters who indulge in a nightly ceremony in which they take turns pretending to be their employer. Much of the play consists of Claire dressing up in Madame's best gown, rouging her cheeks, and proceeding to heap abuse (mostly verbal) upon Solange, who does not play herself or just any maid but Claire. Therefore Claire ends up maligning herself. As the ceremony goes on "Claire" turns the tables and begins to revile "Madame," spitting on her and slapping her. In this way Claire is both vindicated and vilified, all in an evening's fun. When Madame actually does show up, she's not nearly the monster we've come to expect, and their plot to poison her seems superfluous--except, perhaps, as ritual. And the sisters seem to forget that once they've lost their Madame, they've lost their all-important rituals too.

Casting men in the three roles (Genet's wish, denied in the original 1947 production) takes theatrical artifice to extraordinary lengths, admitting to the audience that what's being presented is a bare-faced lie: the three "women" aren't women to begin with.

And there's no question about that fact in this Heartland Players production. Claire (Jonathan Goldman) and Solange (Allen Schaefer) are bearded and awkward in their high heels; their languid poses show off jarringly muscular shoulders and legs. Madame (played with fine comic timing by William Maceri) standing in her slip dressing to go out presents a back and arms made for selling Brut after-shave. The stage is nearly bare except for an exotic mirror and dressing table, standing center stage and elevated a few steps just like a proper altar. There's little question Genet would've liked this production, particularly director Fred Anzevino's staging: several key moments are played with the actors' backs to the audience, their faces visible in the mirror, offering only the reflection of what's going on onstage and heightening the sense of artifice.

Anzevino is less lucky with the performances. He keeps the actors mincing energetically through Genet's dense, difficult script, but they fall too easily into camp. While the speed and comic energy of this production have advantages (the production lasts just under two hours, but I've seen some monologues excerpted from the play that seem to have lasted over three), they also reduce it to a sort of verbose drag show that collapses whenever we're required to listen to it closely. Goldman is a confident, entertaining performer, but Anzevino lets him get away with substituting volume for passion (even if it is "fake" passion) too often, and Schaefer affects a perpetually puzzled look as though the play has left him far behind. Though Maceri is marvelously funny and all three men have flourish to spare, it's a mistake to treat the play like a laugh riot. Anzevino seems to have some sort of clue about what Genet was getting at; now he needs to let his actors and audience in on it as well.

CREATURE FEATURES THEATRE

Griffin Theatre Company
at the Calo Theatre

If you're a horror aficionado, addicted to oblique Lovecraftian dread or the elegant insanity of Poe and Shirley Jackson, Griffin Theatre Company's late-night Creature Features Theatre is probably not for you. And if you're looking for a blood-and-guts gross-out, then you may as well go to a movie.

Griffin's "three tales of terror in one hour" are predictable, tolerably acted, good-hearted horror stories that offer more grins than terror. They have the strange appeal of leftover Halloween candy--there's not quite enough there for a good sugar high but it's still something to chew on late at night.

All three tales are written by William Massolia and directed by Richard Barletta. "Brew" is remarkable mostly for putting a genuine old-fashioned crone (pointy hat, warty nose, and all) behind a simmering cauldron. After all the high-concept weird sisters we've seen over the last few years, this retro wicked witch is a breath of fresh air. "Seeing Them," the second tale, is the most disappointing, offering a pouty modern-day witch who seduces a middle-aged businessman. He tells us the story, but apparently he's been so bewitched that he can't tell it well, constantly halting the action for flashbacks, then halting the flashbacks.

Though "Full Moon Date" is easily as predictable as the other two, it has the benefit of Rick Almada and Dawn Maxey--as loose-limbed and canny a pair of comic actors as I've seen in months of late-night and mainstage productions put together. Nerdy Keller (Almada) gets sexy Marie (Maxey) to go out with him by swearing that he's a werewolf--werewolves turn her on. She chains him up and offers him raw beef.

What transpires is a hilarious lesson in what can happen when you neck with a lycanthrope. The most enjoyable story of the evening, it also seems the shortest. But like most horror stories, the best parts of these three tales delight with a few goose bumps, and the worst are still good for a pleasurable giggle or two.

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