Jean Genet's The Maids isn't often discussed alongside Sam Shepard's Fool for Love. If you've seen both recent stagings by Dark and Stormy Productions, though, comparisons are inevitable. Not only is there a bed in the same place, it's literally the same bed, and there's Sara Marsh back on top of it, tussling with an intimate relationship that defies easy explanation.
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Both plays also have dreamlike elements that collapse time as legacies of ardor and abuse catch up with the characters. Shepard was as quintessentially American a writer as Genet was quintessentially French, though, a difference that's almost comically manifest in these two plays. Fool for Love has hollerin' and drinkin' and shootin' and blowin' stuff up. The Maids has sneering and sipping and strangling and the sending of mysterious letters.
With its tall silent windows and its dark recesses, Dark and Stormy's performance space in the Grain Belt Warehouse proves well-suited to house The Maids. We're in the bedroom, we learn, of a well-to-do woman whose servants Solange (Marsh) and Claire (Jane Froiland) entertain themselves in her absence by enacting elaborate sadomasochistic revenge fantasies that never quite reach their climax. When the madame (Emily Bridges, daughter of movie star Beau Bridges) comes home one night, the maids move to turn their reveries into reality.
Marsh directs the production, having stepped in for original director Mel Day due to a health issue that arose just as rehearsals were starting. The inevitable strain of that unexpected transition doesn't show in this coherent, fluid production that benefits from Mary Shabatura's typically rich lighting design as well as a set design (by Katie Phillips) that makes full use of the limited space.
The show is a tour de force (as they say across the pond) for Marsh, who's always good and has perhaps never been better than in the role of Solange, one that seems tailor-made for her gifts of supreme resolve and physical fearlessness. Froiland captures Claire's vulnerability and irresolution, a weakness that plays out as she melts before the seeming generosity of a confident Bridges.
At the play's center is a long monologue by Solange, who in this production delivers much of it poised stock still at the end of the bed. In lesser hands that could spell trouble, but Marsh keeps us positively rapt as we follow her violently wandering thoughts through a series of doors that never quite lead to escape — only to other doors.
The Maids is a fascinating play, one that's often staged with creative casting (cross-dressing men, actors swapping roles) to explore the show's psychosexual ambiguity. That's the element that's tended to resonate with contemporary American audiences: although we certainly have our own class lines, the particularly twisted intimacy of a traditional maid-madame relationship doesn't quite hold the fascination it did for Genet.
That makes Marsh's challenge all the greater. She needs to take us there, and then take us beyond, and so she does. This maid may have gone mad for love, but she's no fool.
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