Jean Genet wasn’t breaking any new ground by turning a sensational murder case into a play.
Paris’ La Theatre du Grand Guignol had been doing much the same for decades by the time he wrote The Maids in 1947.
Unlike the Grand Guignol, however, Genet wasn’t interested in the gory aspects of a true crime case – that of the Papin sisters, sibling servants who, in 1933, bludgeoned the wife and daughter of their employer to death, then mutilated the bodies.
Instead, Genet created instead a febrile thriller that raised the possibility of a Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship between the oppressed and their oppressors. Today, The Maids remains Genet’s most regularly performed (and adapted) play.
The titular domestic servants are Solange and Claire, played here by Amanda McGregor and Alexandra Aldrich. We meet them as they edge toward the climax of ritualistic performance in which Solange plays the role of their Madame.
The ritual’s climax is thwarted – as always, it seems – when the real Madame (Skyler Ellis) sweeps in, distraught over the arrest of her husband (for some kind of embezzlement) and histrionically vowing to follow him to prison.
Denied release again, Claire and Solange’s bottled-up disgust – for each other, for their servitude – plays out in a mildly comic attempt to poison Madame and, in the end, a death simultaneously suggestive of sacrifice and escape.
Director Carissa Licciardello’s staging is necessarily economical (Belvoir’s 25A season stipulates a maximum budget of $1500 per show) but this is a compact play needing little in terms of fixtures and fittings.
What it does need is powerhouse acting and McGregor and Aldrich are contrastingly excellent: McGregor for her pinched intensity; Aldrich for her fearlessness in impersonating her employer and emotionally crashing in the aftermath.
Licciardello has a male actor play Madame and it pays dividends here. The performance of bourgeois femininity is not just beyond the capabilities of the maids, but is also tantalisingly just out of reach for “Madame”. Ellis is very good in the role.
The Maids has long lost any capacity to shock but its portrait of powerlessness retains its potency in this strongly acted, gimmick-free production.