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Smart turns for Genet's tortuous 'Maids'

Smart turns for Genet's tortuous 'Maids' image
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Smart turns for Genet's tortuous 'Maids'




Some people might call Jean Genet’s “The Maids” “theater that’s good for you,” in the sense that it’s a great play without being all that enjoyable.

Nuts to all that. I doubt any aspect of “The Maids” is “good for us” in any emotional, social, ethical, political or lesson-teaching sense. That was fine with Genet, an anarchist who employed his plays and novels as hammer blows against what he deemed an oppressive and intolerable society.

No, “The Maids” isn’t feel-good theater. But oh my, is it theater – as amply demonstrated last night at Performance Network. For an hour and 50 intermissionless minutes, three actors hold us spellbound – even if it’s spellbound by confusion, fear, a kind of twisted horniness and even claustrophobia: Genet’s own “No Exit.”

It’s the first production of Ellipsis Theatre Company, whose members aren’t averse to taking chances. In Genet’s play-within-a-play, two French maids (Joanna Woodcock and Adrianna Buonarroti) take turns playing Maid and wealthy employer Madame, with all the bilious savagery they can muster.

In the case of Woodcock and Buonarroti that’s a great deal; they largely surmount casting that doesn’t feel quite right. As younger maid-sister Claire, Buonarroti is almost too beautiful, too much a haughty cupcake. So too, the casting of a cross-dressed Peter Knox as Madame seems out of sorts with tradition (Genet’s thespians should be all women or all men).

Yet Knox is a knockout narcissist, preening and cooing lines as if they’d been written just for him. Buonarroti has a similar grasp; clearly, this trio has dissected every line, every word, every comma in “The Maids” to get it right.

Still, the show is a personal triumph for Woodcock as mad maid Solange. Unkempt, sweaty, stringy-haired, she resembles a goddess who’s fallen on hard times and knows it: Woodcock is both vamp and tragedian, and her raging, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy near play’s end is beyond brilliant.

The production is a fine enigma: Eric R Bassey’s set is half inside, half outside, half real, half surreal. Christine Reising’s costumes are simultaneously elaborate and disheveled, while Johanna Broughton’s lighting is bright and dark, eerily akin to sunlight on the moon.

'The Maids” will continue through March 24 at Performance Network, 408 W. Washington St. Curtain is 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. For information call 663-0681.