By MARK BLANKENSHIP
No matter where you sit for Red Bull Theater's revival of The Maids, now at Theatre at St. Clement's, you might be startled by the set. Patrons are ushered past the regular seats and taken to specially constructed risers on the stage. They sit on all four sides of an elegant bedchamber, and throughout the show, everyone can see everyone else.
And the performers, of course, are as close as the crowd. Jean Genet's 1947 play follows sisters Solange (Ana Reeder) and Claire (Jeanine Seralles), two maids who plan to kill their mistress, Madame (J. Smith-Cameron). To prepare, they playact the murder with each other. Solange may put on Madame's finest gown while Claire, pretending to be Solange, pretends to kill her.
Thanks to the set, audiences sit just inches from their schemes. The effect is deliciously uncomfortable. "For us, it developed into kind of a peep-show room, where the audience would be voyeurs" says Jesse Berger, both Red Bull's artistic director and the director of this production. "I love it when I see people try to lean in and see something around the corner. I think it engages the audience in a unique way."
The naughty playfulness of this design---the way it simultaneously seduces and unsettles---suits the spirit of Genet's writing. A subversive and imaginative writer, his plays toy with life's theatricality, with the way identities are performed, and the result can brilliant, charming, and upsetting in equal measure. In The Maids, for instance, it's delightful to watch the sisters switch in and out of various roles, and when Madame herself storms into the room, their instant return to servitude has the comic tension of a farce. But eventually, they're overwhelmed by the murderous spirit of their game. They lose control of their fictional identities, and there are real-world consequences.
"Hopefully, it gives you multiple layers of enjoyment as you put together the puzzle that Genet has provided," says Berger. "He loves to set up this construct of the game and then pull the rug out from under your feet and say, 'No, actually this is reality.'"
But as fascinating as those layers are, they present a serious challenge to artists. "There's always going to be three truths for every line in this play," says Berger. "One of the slippery things, if you're an actor, is that you have to determine, 'Who am I really in this moment? Am I Claire? Am I Solange? Am I Madame?' We tried to pin down the 'grounding truth' for each moment and then allow the other things to flare out from there."
In the process, the company also discovered that the play is subtler than it might seem on the page. Berger explains, "The playfulness is what comes out in getting it on its feet and hearing it aloud. That wasn't fully apparent until we started realizing, 'Yeah, Genet is always aware of the audience, and [the characters] are always playing some kind of game.' Even at his most tragic, there's always some tongue in his cheek."
Berger continues, "But I never wanted it to become so tongue in cheek that it would become camp, and I never wanted it to be so deadly serious that people wouldn't be able to laugh and enjoy themselves. Every time we found ourselves saying, 'We're just playing for laughs here' or 'We're crying way too much here,' we would just try to find our way back to what was actually happening for a character in that moment."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor