Based on the case of the Papin sisters, two maids who savagely murdered their employers in 1930s France, Jean Genet's first play is a dark psychological study of obsession and eroticism. It opens on an elaborate master/servant ritual and continues to reveal the two maids, Claire and Solange, as both sisters and lovers. Lesbianism, incest, sadomasochism - all the erotic taboos are right here, in an atmosphere as deliriously claustrophobic as a fun house. It's enough to make your skin crawl. But, oddly enough, mine didn't. The Shotgun Players' production is more intense than exact, and because of this never reaches the uncomfortable level of erotic danger it could. Susan Papa and Mary Eaton Fairfield, as the maids, are very fine: Papa has a fantastic buoyant energy, and Fairfield's expressive face is able to catalogue a whole host of subtle emotions. But the star of this production is the actress with the smallest role. Beth Donohue's Madame is rendered with perfect confidence and humor; she's both grandiose and grounded. Her entrance midway through adds a fresh tempo to an opening scene that, ironically enough, risks becoming static in its hysteria. Director Katie Bales has succeeded in creating an intelligent, energetic production. I only wish she had made me squirm more.
The longevity of Jean Genet's most popular (though hardly populist) play, The Maids, is one of those small mysteries: it's repetitive, didactic, and difficult to perform well, yet directors and actors can't stop exploring its rather unyielding depths. The fascination probably has much to do with Genet himself, whose status as a literal "outlaw artist" gave him mythic stature so long ago it's surprising to remember he's been dead for less than a decade. Another explanation is the source material -- a notorious case in which two sisters brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter, never offering any real explanation for the deed. Typically, Genet dramatizes this incident (which also inspired several films, including the recent Sister My Sister) very loosely, being less interested in the "facts" than in their symbolic embodiment of notions about power, class, and eros. In Katie Bales's current Shotgun Players production Madame's plush bedchamber (designed by Andrea Bechert) is a stage on which sibling servants Claire (Susan Papa) and Solange (Mary Eaton Fairfield) endlessly playact a "ceremony" of master-servant domination and revenge. Such is their obsession, equal parts awe and hate, that an actual appearance by Madame herself (Beth Donohue) seems more interruption than exposure. Genet's formalized language (which has perhaps never quite found an ideal English translator) can seem static and exasperating. It's always a challenge to deliver his ritual grotesqueries without resorting to camp, and Bales's uneven production often struggles. Donohue's Madame is too much a broad, bellowing caricature of condescension; Papa, too, depends overmuch on gestural mannerism. Fairfield's Solange is more serious and compelling, conveying the arc of identity crumbling toward self-immolation. The show begins oddly, with a gratuitous period tune sung by Donohue, and its close is accompanied by a female love duet (I forget from what opera) too familiar from its use in The Hunger and other upmarket lesbian-exploitation flicks. Still, the actors find their groove midway, slowly drawing us into their willfully perverse exercise in rebellion through frenzied self-loathing.