Jean Genet’s “The Maids” at Lincoln Center Festival

I attended the next-to-last showing of Jean Genet’s play “The Maids” at Lincoln Center Festival last night.  This production was brought to New York by the Sydney Theater Company.  To me, the big discovery was the least well-known of the three actresses – Elizabeth Debicki, who played the Mistress.  Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, both major international film stars, played the two sisters who are the Mistress’s maids.

Of course Genet wrote this in French, but it was presented in an English translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton.  Andrews is the director, and the production’s extraordinary set was designed by Alice Babidge.  Lighting designer is Nick Schlieper.  Nobody was specifically credited in the program as costume designer, but perhaps Ms. Babidge had a hand in that as well.  Bits of incidental music came from Oren Ambarchi, with a big hat tip to Brahms, as some segments from his symphonies were obtrusively played at a few spots.  Large projections on stage from a live camera feed were designed and operated by Sean Bacon.  Unusually, there was an explicit credit for a “dramaturg” in the program: Matthew Whittet.  And evidently the “new translation” was based on a prior translation by Julie Rose.  The listings in the program book thus raised some interesting questions.  Most prominently, how close was this presentation to something Genet would have recognized as his play?  The booklet notes mention that Genet intended this work to be performed in drag by three male actors, but that notion, quite obviously, was tossed aside early on.

In any event, I thought this was one of the weirdest shows I’ve seen in a long time.  The premise is that sisters, working as maids to a wealthy woman, have decided to finish her off and run away, or something to that effect.  The first hour they spend plotting how they will do this, with many shenanigans as they disport themselves about her fabulous apartment.  When she finally arrives, the atmosphere changes starkly, and I found that after the somewhat talky first hour, which occasionally lost my attention and concentration, the entrance of the Mistress was like a fresh breeze, riveting me to the proceedings as long as she was on-stage.  Whether that is an artifact of how the plot develops or of how Ms. Debicki animated this character, I couldn’t tell, but she certain injected an incredible quantum of energy into what had until then struck me as a less than energetic presentation.

Since the run is over after tonight, I don’t think I am giving away too much to mention that the maids’ plot is not successful.  But the working out of their confrontations after the Mistress shows up is quite entertaining and occasionally quite hilarious.

Somebody at Lincoln Center Festival did make one significant miscalculation.  They had decided to run it as one long act, presumably because Genet conceived it that way?  (Although I can imagine this being done as a two-act show, as there is a natural breaking point either just before or just after the Mistress arrives.)  But the program said it would run 1 hour and 30 minutes without an intermission.  In the event, it ran about two hours without an intermission, and that is long time to sit with no relief.  Since the second half was so lively, it wasn’t oppressively so, but I found myself glancing at the my cellphone from time to time, wondering how long this would be going on….

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