Burbage’s muddled Maids

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By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  August 16, 2011

There are employee/employer disputes and then there is Jean Genet's The Maids, which makes the West Virginia railroad riots of 1877 look like an arms-crossed kid pouting over spinach on a plate.

A light tone can be taken about this production of the serious play because the current Burbage Theatre Company staging, directed by Alex Duckworth at Perishable Theatre through August 20, is playing it as a farce. This apparently was decided because the 1947 drama about maintaining dignity in the face of social inequity might otherwise come across as melodramatic.

The trouble is, while the angry conversations between the two maids of the title might sound stilted, especially in translation, their discussions were supposed to convey their intelligence. These two young women's lives and roles were circumscribed by their economic status, not their native wit. Their plight and twisted rage reflects dire circumstance and injustice, which we might benefit from empathizing with — this is theater, after all, not commedia dell'arte.

So while this production is entertaining, it does trivialize the playwright's intentions. Let me humbly suggest, not having had the nail-biting challenge of having to mount the play, that making a drama accomplish its designed dramatics is preferable. Otherwise there's always Feydeau. Or Neil Simon.

The storyline is quickly described. Sisters Claire (Nina Genatossio) and Solange (Valerie Westgate) are servants of a wealthy woman one or the other eventually describes as beautiful and generous. Referred to only as Madame (Jeff Church), we don't see her until toward the end of the play, which is less than an hour long. The maids take turns pretending to be Madame, while the other one takes the role of her servant sister berating her boss to the point of violence. The savage accusations build toward murdering the woman, as they frequently return to their own identities to discuss what they are doing. Yet in their playacting they never quite get to the point of actually dispatching the woman. They can't quite bring themselves to do it, even in make-believe.

But the lover of Madame is getting out of jail on bail; he was briefly imprisoned because of an anonymous accusing letter sent by one of the girls. If he comes here and compares notes with Madame, they could be found out. If there ever were a time to actually get rid of their employer, it's now. Can they do it? Do they really want to?

Genet's inspiration for The Maids was an infamous 1933 incident in France, in which the Papin sisters, also maids, slaughtered their female employer and her adult daughter. The murder has been dramatized more literally in plays and films, such as Wendy Kesselman's My Sister In This House, which was staged at Providence College a few years ago. In his plays, Genet was fascinated with the dramatic opportunities and psychological illuminations of role playing, so that's what he was exploring here.

Representing their squalid garret room, the set has a couple of bare mattresses and sheets, overlooked by a ceramic angel on a nightstand. (The text specified a Virgin Mary shrine, a religious note that would underscore their conflicted mental states.)

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