See Synthetic Unlimited’s staging of Jean Genet’s psychodrama “The Maids” for its excellent acting, set, direction and costumes. But be prepared for the dark, surreal nature of the material and the paranoid schizophrenic factor in the language and interactions, all intended by the playwright. This is heavyweight theater presented at its finest.
Jean Genet, part of a group of writers sometimes referred to as the surrealist Theater of the Absurd, loosely based his play on the lurid newspaper headlines in 1933 France about two sisters, both maids, who killed their mistress and her daughter and were found by the police naked in bed together. Genet filtered the headlines through his own views of class struggle and power, between the “haves” and “have-nots,” incorporating also the psychological aspect of the madness of the sisters.
The play opens with the two maids, in their employer’s bedroom, role-playing a freakish simulation of their relationship with their mistress, whom they refer to only as Madame. They fantasize the killing of their mistress, then move on to actual subjugated interaction with the mistress when she arrives home. The language is, at times, guttural and harsh, other times lyrical. At all times, the playwright makes you feel like you are a complicit voyeur, watching strange, sometimes erotic rituals performed by a pair of seriously deranged domestics.
The staging of the play is at times overwrought and melodramatic, at times subtle and quiet, as appropriate for the various scenes and moods. Sam Haley-Hill, the director, has done a wonderful job of evoking the weird and psychotic relationship between the two sisters and the variable haughtiness and condescension of the mistress through the positioning of his actresses, their interactions and the eerie use of shadow screens.
Each actress brings the exact qualities necessary to illuminate her individual character. Tinley Ireland as the maid Claire easily alternates between timid and loudly dominant — she particularly shines when she is wearing Madame’s red dress. Kate Tobie as the sister maid Solange adroitly and frighteningly swings from mousey to over-the-top mad. And Grace Fae as Madame conveys perfectly both the contempt and pity she feels for her servants.
The set is another coup for Pam Hodges, set designer extraordinaire. Madame’s bedroom, done in blood red, is elegant yet somehow lurid — perfect for this play. The props, designed by Grace Fae, contribute to the feel of wealth. Belle Star’s costumes are spot on, illuminating both the elegance of Madame and the maids’ stock outfits.
An additional boon to the evening is the pre-event. Before the play, which takes place in the former dining area of The Stonehouse, moderately priced but tasty French cuisine and special drinks are served in the bar, accompanied by live jazz performed by the talented group, Leta’s Blues. Do go early enough to indulge in the pre-event as it makes for a very nice evening.
“The Maids” continues at The Stonehouse for only one more weekend, through Sunday. To see serious theater as it should be done, journey to Nevada City this weekend.
Hindi Greenberg is very impressed that Synthetic Unlimited, a collective of actors, directors and other artists, is putting on monthly plays, a big endeavor for only a two-week show run. Their next play is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — watch out for the yelling and screaming emanating from The Stonehouse in July.