When a play is in need of rescue, there is only one way to do it, and director Ana Cristina (Gigi) Buffington accomplishes the feat thanks to a ferocious trio of actors who pull a complicated play into the world of emotional plunder.
“The Maids” by Jean Genet is a complex exercise in a constantly distorted reality. It’s hard to follow, much less, understand what’s happening on the Touchstone Stage at American Players Theatre.
But three actors, Andrea San Miguel, Melissa Pereyra and Rebecca Hurd deliver such exquisite and gripping performances that the pathway to comprehension is paved with diamonds and gold.
Genet, a Frenchman who was a colleague of Jean Paul Satre, Pablo Picasso and playwright Jean Cocteau, was a passionate disrupter and “The Maids” is an incognito ode on the horrors of a society torn by class discord.
The story features two housemaids, Solange (Ms. San Miguel) and Claire (Ms. Pereyra) who work in the household of Madame (Ms. Hurd).
Solange and Claire are full of hatred and resentment of Madame and engage in intricate role playing, in which they exchange roles, one the boss, the other the servant. The brutality of these exchanges between the two women is in stark contrast to the mystery of strategic placement of two pair of Christian Louboutin red-soled black patent leather high heels. The shoes are strikingly separated at angles on the stage and we know they are going to be worn, but the viciousness and theatricality of these two women raises the suspense on just who is who and who is going to wear the shoes.
Make no mistake about this, while the audience grapples to make decisions on these two characters, the clarity soon becomes obvious that the line between life and theater is a thin one, indeed.
Alternating between virulent sadism and masochism, the two maids switch roles with nary a misstep and bitterly protest when the other has deviated from the proscribed staging of this charade.
The painful portrait of Madame is drawn with a viper-like fine point pen and the pain of being assigned to the lower class is pitiful.
But there is no pity in these portrayals. Sorrow and love for these two are impossible as they hatch their long desired plan to kill Madame and free themselves from their yoke. They have planned the assassination for a long time but each is aware that the time for talk is past and the time for action is at hand.
At the height of the performance Claire reprises the letters she wrote that sent Madame’s lover to prison and demands that Solange disperse all doubt and prepare for what is inevitable.
“Say it! Go on, name it! The ceremony? Besides, we’ve no time to start a discussion now. She’ll be hack, hack, back! But, Solange, this time we’ve got her. I envy you; I wish I could have seen the expression on her face when she heard about her lover’s arrest. For once in my life, I did a good job. You’ve got to admit it. if it weren’t for me, if it hadn’t ,been for my anonymous letter, you’d have missed a pretty sight: the lover hand-cuffed and Madame in tears. It’s enough to kill her. This morning she could hardly stand up.”
The tortured trail of this exercise in violent grief is made safe for an audience by the distinguished performances of these three actors.
Ms. San Miguel, who delights as Lucien in the current production of “A Flea in Her Ear,” here creates a gravity that makes Solange the anchor in this relationship. She is a gifted physical actor and uses her body and movement as a clarion call of understanding. There is no mistaking what Solange is thinking.
The final monologue of Solange is a piece of such powered pain that life seems to stop as it goes on and on and on.
Ms. Pereyra, who stars at Hermia in in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”greets the audience clad in a flimsy slip and exaggerates the sexiness of Madame. She is an actor of incredible range, from a distinguished impersonator of Madame to a beleaguered sister to Solange.
Ms. Hurd casts a spell of such dimension that it demands not only skill but a rare kind of sensitivity. She is painfully funny and full of the kind of exaggerated measure that provides a stunning framework for her two maids.
“The Maids” is a difficult play and a challenging work, for actors, designers and an audience. The great good fortune is that everybody who worked on this production is up to the task.
Production credits: Director: Ana Cristina Buffington; Voice and Text Coach, Eva Breneman; Costume Design, Devon Painter; Scenic Design, Yu Shibagaki; Lighting Design, Jaymi Lee Smith; Sound Design & Original Music; Victoria Deiorio; Fight Director, Brian Byrnes; Stage Manager, Carrie Taylor; Production photographer, Liz Lauren.