THEATER REVIEW: The Maids
City Center, New York, August 16, 2014
She sits at her mistress’s makeup table, disguising herself with powder and perfumes. Her sister rolls on their mistress’s bed, raising her legs high, then spread-eagled. We see these two women from the usual distance of audience to performer, but we also see them projected above the stage like a breaking news feed, captured by little cameras hidden around the room. No matter the powder, these women can’t avoid being watched and projected for everyone to see. This is how their ritual begins.
Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert play these two title roles in Sydney Theatre Company’s staging of The Maids. Jean Genet’s play has been newly translated by director Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton, who emphasize the show’s vulgar comedy. The two maids, Claire and Solange, take turns portraying their mistress when she’s gone, acting out a theater of debasement and revenge where one maid endures her mistress’s demands, then murders her. The Maids opens on Cate Blanchett’s Claire, impersonating her employer, mock-strangled by Huppert’s Solange (role-playing as Claire). When their mistress arrives home, the ritual becomes reality as the maid sisters scheme to off their mistress once and for all.
Even when it’s funny, Andrews never lets go of the unsettling feeling this is no ordinary day for these maids. They won’t all make it to night. Cate Blanchett crackles as Claire; she’s absolutely striking in person, but she’s eager to play into the horror of her character. As the show goes on, her mascara runs down her sour face, her body language gets more disheveled. Both she and Isabelle Huppert are directed to look into the hidden cameras at moments when, up close, their magnified beauty looks older, more horrific. Blanchett also has a zest for text: she’s charmingly theatrical as she bites into each expletive.
Huppert and her heavily French-accented voice are an unusual fit for Solange. Sometimes her speech came across like gutteral sounds, the gibberish of an aging Eliza Doolittle. But though I couldn’t always understand her, Huppert’s physical zaniness matches Blanchett’s frayed nerves. She’s gleeful toward her demeaning mistress (Elizabeth Debicki, whose vanity is so heightened that she seems as pitiable as she is funny). It’s ridiculous that Debicki’s very young social-climbing wife holds so much power over Blanchett and Huppert, who both could have been in her shoes in their youth. Is it possible that they graduated from mistress to maid, tossed aside, with nothing to live for?
Blanchett’s presence alone justified the trip to The Maids, but I found the whole production wacky enough to work. We saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder the same night. Of course the woman’s guide is more bizarre than any gentleman could imagine.