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Sisters slay: Two maids stage a gruesome uprising in Theatre Pro Rata's latest production

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The most obvious reference point for My Sister in This House, a psychosexual drama about hired help in France, is Jean Genet’s The Maids. Americans have a comparison closer to home, though: the story of Lizzie Borden.

My Sister in This House

The Crane Theater
$14-$41

Then and now, armchair detectives have found it difficult to comprehend Borden’s state of mind when she allegedly murdered her father and stepmother with an axe. To do so requires understanding the crushing ennui of being an upper-middle-class woman in a social milieu where you’re expected to be permanently at leisure, but don’t have the resources to go anywhere.

That’s the situation of Madame Danzard (Katherine Kupiecki) and her daughter Isabelle (Nicole Goeden) in Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister in This House, currently being staged by Theatre Pro Rata. Provincial but status-obsessed, Danzard fixates on the details of her tacky dress and decor, talking about rather than to the family’s maids, Christine (Kayla Dvorak Feld) and Léa (Nissa Nordland Morgan).

Christine and Léa are convent-educated sisters who share both a fierce love and a rivalry over Who Mother Loved Best, bunking up in a small bed with hardly any meaningful outside contacts. Costume designer Samantha Kuhn Staneart’s gothic black-and-white uniforms are constantly going on or coming off as the sisters retreat to their garret room to work out their anxieties.

Your mind doesn’t need to wander very far to grasp what those sessions ultimately entail: Director Carin Bratlie Wethern doesn’t skimp on the significant glances, the one thing the sisters can afford an unlimited supply of. As years pass and the maids’ eyes sink into their pitch-black sockets, Christine’s jealous preoccupation with her younger sister metastasizes into violence.

The Pro Rata production embraces grotesquerie, underlining the cruel absurdity of Madame Danzard’s white-glove rule over the three young, desperately unhappy women who share her rain-drenched roof. Ursula K. Bowden’s convincingly musty set rises toward the Crane Theater ceiling under dangling shards of panes that send reflected spots of light wandering through the house like poltergeists, while Jacob M. Davis’ claustrophobic sound design makes your skin crawl with every snap or crack that punctuates the charged silence.

None of these characters is particularly dynamic (although inspired by the same true story that sparked Genet’s play), so the actors’ focus is on sustaining the sense of madness that steadily escalates to a breaking point. Feld glowers and Morgan cowers, while Goeden flops onto the furniture in a state of perpetual annoyance. The most effectively disturbing performance comes from Kupiecki: Her studied obliviousness is scarier than her maids’ stifled seething.

The show is a bracing dose of counter-seasonal horror, although its chills are likely to dissipate quickly when you step out into the summer sun—leaving behind Léa and Christine, whose only escape is into their own icy bedroom.

IF YOU GO:

My Sister in This House
The Crane Theater
2303 Kennedy St. NE, Minneapolis
612-234-7135; through June 16