Jean Genet’s once-controversial 1947 play The Maids (Les Bonnes) has had a substantial number of revivals despite its challenging avant-garde style and subject matter, inspired by the true story of two maids (sisters), who murdered their mistress. I’ve seen several, none of them fully satisfactory. In 2014, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, two of our greatest actresses, tackled the play, with mixed results, at Lincoln Center. Now, INTAR Theatre, in collaboration with One-Eighth Theater, is offering a bizarre adaptation by José Rivera, directed by Daniel Irizarry, that’s likely to make Genet’s ghost seek retribution.
INTAR has been devoted for four decades to producing plays by Latin Americans, including adaptations of the classics, like Rivera’s take on Genet’s examination of role-playing, identity, sibling rivalry, murder, and power dynamics in a world of servants and masters. Rivera is an acclaimed Puerto Rican playwright, best known for his Academy Award-nominated screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries. His approach is to move the play from its French Louis-Quinze bedroom to a sugarcane plantation on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, in 1941, when the U.S. Navy stirred up local dissent by occupying the island for its military needs.
He changes the characters’ names from Claire, Solange, and Madame to Monique (Laura Butler Rivera, Casey Robinson,), Ivette (Charlie Munn and Folami Williams), and La Doña (Daniel Irizarry). He also takes great liberties with the text, sprinkling it generously with profanity and mingling anachronisms, like Princess Diana, with frequent topical references that place the action within a world of political turmoil; thus Madame’s unseen lover, the alleged thief Monsieur, becomes a communist subversive, Don Pedro.
On paper, the idea looks promising. Based on his program notes, we anticipate seeing how Rivera can turn Genet’s sadomasochistic nightmare into what he describes as a play “about oppression and class, the issue of U.S. colonialism and the liberty of Puerto Rico, how money corrupts relationships, and how siblings navigate power, illusion, sexual rivalry, rebellion against the status quo, and emotional enslavement.”
Irizarry’s production, however, isn’t a program note; it’s a phantasmagoric free-for-all that more closely resembles a World Wrestling Entertainment event. The actors perspire like crazy as they shout, leap, twist, jump, dance, crawl upside down along overhead pipes, do acrobatic flips, take flying dives onto a large mattress, writhe about sexually, pose, and otherwise physicalize almost every one of the show’s 90 intermissionless minutes. Their movements are enhanced by music ranging from Al Jolson singing “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” to upbeat Latin numbers. It’s a good thing that the hardworking, talented cast is so vocally and physically nimble.
If you’re seated in the front rows facing the acting area on two sides (Jorge Dieppa is the designer) you’re likely to have a sweaty actor clean your eyeglasses, sit on your lap, put a wig on you (with whispered instructions to cry “ouch!” when he yanks it), toss glitter (that will remain in your hair until you wash it out), and make other privacy invasions. Any chance of focusing on themes, action, or characters is completely submerged in Irizarry’s precisely choreographed but utterly irrelevant—despite his own program note—hysterics.
Then there’s the casting. Jean Paul Sartre noted that Genet would like to have had the women played by adolescent boys. Many later productions, like this one, thereby cast men (not boys); however, while La Doña is played by a single actor (the muscular Irizarry, in a white, sleeveless dress, his beard tied into three beardlets and his shaved head covered by a blonde wig), Ivette and Monique are each shared by a male and female actor. At some moments, all four appear simultaneously, mirroring one another’s behavior, as in a fun house. During the conclusion, which radically alters Genet’s own ending, Rivera himself appears, for some reason, as Monique.
Smothered as the production is in such self-indulgent inventiveness, well-done as it is, it’s nearly impossible to follow which maid is which or what the hell is happening to anyone; I pity those, like my companion, who’ve never seen or read The Maids. Unable to make heads or tails of it, they’re likely to feel as oppressed by the production as the maids are by their mistress. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way out.
500 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through October 23
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).