Service With A Smile

Incestuous maids go on a killing spree; a nuclear physicist stands by the fatherland

In February of 1933, a middle-aged bourgeoise and her 27-year-old daughter were found murdered in their home in Le Mans, France. Their faces had been cudgeled beyond recognition; their eyes had been put out by hand.

The killers were the victims' housemaids, sisters Christine and Lea Papin, who undoubtedly inspired more haves to bemoan the difficulty of finding good help than any other domestics in French history. The crime has spawned a cottage industry of books, movies, and plays, including Jean Genet's The Maids from 1947 and Wendy Kesselman's My Sister in This House from 1981 (produced on film in 1995 as Sister, My Sister), now being presented by Theatre Unbound.

Sisterhood means supporting each other while you gouge out your employers' eyes: Kristin Richardson and Alyssa Cartwright
Theatre Unbound
Sisterhood means supporting each other while you gouge out your employers' eyes: Kristin Richardson and Alyssa Cartwright

After watching Kia Erdmann play the Papins' younger victim, renamed Isabelle, the thought of the Mademoiselle having her eyes torn out seemed particularly tragic. Because Erdmann's are some mightily impressive peepers: giant globes that gleam, roll, and pout with prodigious expressiveness. Erdmann's whole performance is rife with physical comedy, and each time I felt she was hamming, she won me back by rapturously sneaking a chocolate or goofily hoofing to some radio-piped swing. Director Stacey Poirier is bold to let Erdmann flex her comedic biceps so liberally. With important exceptions, Isabelle and her nasty, punctilious mother, Madame Danzard (Muriel J. Bonertz), work apart from their future slayers. We arrive at the show's brutal climax as if from two discrete plays: a comedy of manners starring the employers, and a disquieting tragedy starring the maids.

What motivated the double murder remains an open debate, though it seems clear that the elder, Christine (Kristin Richardson), led the mentally arrested Lea (Alyssa Cartwright). My Sister suggests that the sisters were lovers (I lost count of how many times the lights dimmed on a tentative sororal embrace), and that Christine suffered from severe mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia perhaps), a condition aggravated by class and gender discrimination. That's a lot to convey in 90 minutes.

Most of it here is telegraphed through broad strokes (the slammed pot, the sudden shout) and by a few obvious lines. Cartwright, saddled with an unfortunate wig, offers a timorous Lea, her puerile squeak adding a layer of creepiness to the proceedings. But her characterization could have grown more throughout the play, and as with Richardson, her readiness to ice her bosses isn't entirely believable. Nor is her wig.

 

With Park Square's current production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Carson Kreitzer's The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer opening in February, 2003 is fast looking to be a banner year for physicist drama-- like murderin'-maid drama a tiny subclass in the theatrical universe. Copenhagen speculates as to what happened during the mysterious 1941 meeting between groundbreaking Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Stephen D'Ambrose), who was part Jewish and later fled occupied Denmark, and his brilliant German ex-pupil Werner Heisenberg (J.C. Cutler), who though apparently unsympathetic to Nazism remained loyal to his beloved fatherland.

An embarrassed science know-nothing, I'll confess that had I not chugged a couple of Diet Mountain Dews with dinner, I might have dozed off during one of the debates about the uncertainty principle or complementarity. Really, though, Frayn should be commended for making this dense material so approachable to the average schmo. This is accomplished mainly by putting Bohr and Heisenberg's discoveries--which helped make the atomic bomb possible--into metaphorical, historical, and ethical context.

Director Jon Cranney's production is occasionally pompous, as when a blaring passage from a Bach organ work punctuates a dramatic line, but he mostly lets the beautifully written play exist on its own quiet terms. What's most novel about the play in this era of axis-of-evil dualism is its insistence that morality is, in the spirit of Heisenberg's famous theory, always uncertain.

 
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