WITH FRUSTRATIONS OVER high rents and a pervasive suspicion that Portland is turning into a mere amusement park for the young and wealthy, the work of Jean Genet—famous critic of the bourgeoisie—has resurfaced just in time. Public Citizen Theatre’s inaugural production is a faithful performance of The Maids, featuring Martin Crimp’s translation and Aaron Filyaw’s directorial debut. The play about murderous servants feels contemporary some 69 years after Genet penned it. Sure, live-in maids aren’t much found in middle-class homes these days, but the existential desperation at the core of Genet’s drama is woefully timely.
The plot is thought to be loosely based on a real-life murder in the 1930s of a woman and her daughter by their maids, two overworked siblings. The notorious case led to much debate among French intellectuals as to the cause and meaning of these acts. The same questions persist in Genet’s play, whose sister-maids are named Claire (Ahna Dunn-Wilder) and Solange (Amanda Mehl). When left alone, they engage in an elaborate, sadomasochistic roleplaying game, taking turns at acting the part of their mistress while the other sister kills her. They dress in their mistress’ fine clothing, set a timer, keep an eye out the window, and don’t ever seem to have enough time to “finish” the enactment by seeing it through to the mistress’ death. Until tonight.
The play, which is rife with ambiguity as characters slip in and out of their ritual acting roles, is a difficult one, but Public Citizen gets so much right. Take, for instance, the opening scene: A woman dressed in a slip sits preening at her vanity and berates her maid for bringing a pair of dish gloves into the bedroom. It’s not clear to the uninitiated audience whether these are the two maids in the midst of their roleplaying, or the real mistress and servant. The mistress calls the maid by the wrong name, mixing the girls up. Then, a bit of sibling discourse intrudes—mean-girl teasing about a delivery boy—but we wonder, couldn’t this also be a sibling-like dynamic that evolves in the close quarters of a household where a woman lives with two other women of similar age? The rapid shifts and nuances of the scene are effectively embodied and managed by its actors, especially Dunn-Wilder as Claire (pretending to be the mistress)—it’s a strong start both for this production and its fledgling theater company. The slippage of social roles, play-acting, and reality creates an atmosphere of interesting—and sometimes darkly humorous—ambiguity that’s maintained throughout The Maids.
When the maids’ mistress (Alexandria Casteele) arrives home, the stakes and tension build, making this a gripping, psychological one-act. All bright clothes and bubbly bourgeois angst, the mistress can be casually cruel, and even her gestures of warmth and generosity are oppressive and dehumanizing. We soon see she is as helpless as Claire and Solange in rescuing them from the humiliation of their position in society; she is perversely incarcerated in the same system.
With this exciting debut, Public Citizen Theatre achieves the nuance and dark humor of Genet’s classic play at a moment when wealth disparity and its effects are critically topical.