INTRICATE FICTIONS Swapping costumes, roles, and identities.
When it is Claire's turn to be Madame, she paints her lips and cheeks a garish crimson. She preens, pouts, flounces, demands to be dressed in her white gown with the spangles. And with an impeccable, caricatured cruelty, she abuses her maid Soulange. The scene is supposed to end in murder — Claire and Soulange agree on this.
But the devil is in the lunatic details, in Jean Genet's study of power, self-loathing, and ritualized violence, The Maids, which runs this weekend only in Portland Stage Company's Susie Konkel Studio Space (next door to the mainstage entrance), under the inspired direction of Cait Hylan, a directing and dramaturgy intern at PSC. With exquisitely haunting acting by three of Portland's most formidable young male actors — Ian Carlsen, Bari Robinson, and Michael Dix Thomas — and an eerie directorial innovation by Hylan, this production of Genet's classic may be the scariest show you see this season.
When Genet wrote The Maids in 1947, Hylan notes, he had in mind the rituals of both children's play and the Catholic Church. As Claire and Soulange obsessively, repetitively, and sadomasochistically act out the death of their "mistress," the play explores the primal human urges toward playacting and ceremony — guilt, rage, desire — and takes them into a teeming madness. This is pretty spooky stuff, and Hylan's directorial approach makes it even more disturbing by adding new layers to the maids' meticulously created "reality." For one thing, Claire and Soulange are men playing at being women. For another, they live together in a dingy mid-century psychiatric ward, which makes them, effectively, mental patients playing at being maids playing at being a mistress and a mistress-murdering maid.
The intricacy of their fictions alone is terrifying, and the performances of these three actors — in institutional pajamas, swapping bathrobes — is genuinely hair-raising. I can't think of anyone I'd rather see daft and vamping in elegant dregs of drag than Carlsen, whose range and grace notes are one of the great continuing pleasures of Portland's theater scene. He's well met by the excellent Robinson (the lead in Mad Horse's recent Six Degrees of Separation), whose level gaze and restrained but smoldering authority contrast beautifully with Carlsen's more feminine flourishes. And as Madame, Thomas (lately seen as The Groom in Blood Wedding at SPACE) raises his voice and octaves in a flight of deranged falsetto laughter that chills the blood. Don't miss these guys in their dark burlesques.
The Maids | by Jean Genet | Directed by Caitlin Hylan | presented by Portland Stage's Intern Company | at PSC's Susie Konkel Studio Space, 25 Forest Ave, Portland | through May 29, Thurs-Sat @ 7:30 pm; Sun @ 2 pm | 207.504.0620 | pay-what-you-can, no advance sales