By Carolyn Hayes
Lamentably postponed and long anticipated, Magenta Giraffe Theatre’s production of “The Maids” (by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman) is categorically worth the wait. Closing the season with a daring ideological text that harkens back to the company’s initial production of Sartre’s “No Exit,” director Frannie Shepherd-Bates use cresting tension and the crucial force of opposites to dabble in a dangerous game and see it through to mind-bending ends.
In a posh bedroom, an impulsive woman clad in only a slip (Jaclyn Strez) mercilessly berates a demure woman dressed as a maid (Molly McMahon). The melodramatics of the exchange could be mistaken for a soap opera, but for good reason, which the attentive viewer will begin to pick up from the first smooth instances of interjection and name correcting. Indeed, these are hardly line flubs, but rather carefully laid exposition: The two are sisters, both of them maids, engaging in a vindictive fantasy of the “I’ll be her and you be me” variety while their mistress is out of the house.
And what a house it is. Designer Adam Crinson saturates the tastefully detailed set with color at its periphery, both juxtaposing and complementing the modified French provincial aesthetic. The foreground is subjected to regimented contrasts, piled-on patterns and extremes tied together by their dearth of pigment. As it turns out, most everything in this world is reduced to black and white, from Crinson’s meticulous set dressing and properties, to Katie Casebolt’s vastly symbolic costumes, to the mindsets of the sisters themselves. Because their identities as maids are no more material to them than the ceremonial games they play, the divide between authentic and artificial self further feeds into the polar dualities they allow to consume them: light and dark, master and servant, innocent and guilty, leader and follower, winner and loser, life and death.
The slow reveal of the play’s conceit beneath the conceit is brilliantly served by Strez and McMahon. The former’s flinty take on her unseen employer manages to be both despicable and strangely aspirational, while the latter’s occasional defiant ad-lib hints at the pair’s true dynamic and, more importantly, copacetic principles. As is prone to happen when one’s time is not one’s own, the ritual must be cut short in anticipation of the Madame’s return. Yet even as the sisters tidy the ransacked room, lingering resentments hover and permeate the conversation, making clear a murky divide that exists between their violent imaginations and vengeful realities. As the sisters’ cogent deliberations turn eerily toward enacting the mayhem of their game play, the power of opposing energies makes the developments believable, with tempestuous Strez’s peaks and valleys volleying off McMahon’s venomous suggestion and powerfully icy burn; it’s a truly terrible partnership and a wanton pleasure to witness.
Another scenario is suddenly conjured by the long-awaited appearance of the employer, that effusively self-interested Madame (Meredith Gifford). Whether she is as bad as the sisters portray her or whether she is being seen through their lens is for the viewer to decide; in either case, this is a marvelous monster indeed. Between histrionic guilt, misplaced overcompensation, and hateful bemusement, her relatively brief appearance heaps context and empathy onto a heretofore-narrow worldview, but Gifford’s finest contribution is the pure comic sharpness of her detestable privilege-blind superiority. Through her, the prospect of Madame’s elimination can safely shift from a position of dread to delectable possibility.
Where the play succeeds is in making plain its many possible, fascinating, and intertwined facets of play-acting and reality, even as they continue to invert and gain complexity by turns. The more strenuous task is to keep the viewer invested in an ultimate purpose; otherwise, it’s like being asked to feed Schrodinger’s cat – faced with an indecipherable puzzle, it’s too easy to simply pour out some kibble and wander away. Here, the play’s steady modulation through late revelations and persistently added layers serve to make things less transparent, not more, threatening to disengage the viewer from an enigma that so thoroughly refuses to be known. Yet it’s a relatively minor complaint in light of this show’s extremely high degree of difficulty, translating to a gentle muddle of concluding beats that don’t quite meet the promise of a tremendous existential foundation.
With a firm grasp on its dichotomies and an impressive ability to turn on a dime, “The Maids” delivers no shortage of intellectual rigor bolstered by riveting stakes. This production’s strident tone, extravagant performances, and fundamental teamwork lay the groundwork for an insistent treatise on the roles we take on within our relationships, jobs, and society, as well as how we define them (and they us).
It takes a ruthless company to tackle such a cagey offering, but Magenta Giraffe has again proven its mettle for posing huge questions and running headlong at them.
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company at The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through May 18, plus 3 p.m. May 12. 1 hour, 30 minutes; no intermission. $15-18. 313-408-7269. http://www.magentagiraffe.org