The two servants in Jean Genet's twisted black comedy The Maids, currently running at SolArts, are less than ideal employees. To take just one example, one of them, Claire (Colleen McClure), wrote a letter to the police designed to land her master in jail. She succeeded.
Perhaps even more troubling, whenever Madame (Rita Pohlé) is away from the house, Claire and her sister, Solange (Kristen Loree), play an elaborate ritualized role-playing game in which one of them dresses up in the Madame's clothing and jewelry. In their little play within a play, they take enormous pleasure in verbally and physically abusing each other. At the root of this repeated fantasy is a deep-seated hatred of their beautiful, young mistress who they both also clearly admire and fear. It also quickly becomes clear that they hate each other and themselves.
Most of Genet's novels and plays revolve around criminality and perversion, two subjects with which he was intimately familiar. Born to a prostitute in 1910, he was raised in an orphanage and fell into a life of crime early on. Early stints in prison gave him a chance to explore his homosexuality. They also gave him a chance to write his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers.
Genet's rough, debauched life gave him a special affinity for the poor, the outcasts and the transgressors of his society, an affinity that's explored with brilliant weirdness in The Maids, his first successful play. It's only people with power who have the luxury of blathering about their own trite opinions and desires to anyone and everyone. In the elaborate verbal games Claire and Solange play, they grab at that privilege like a diamond suspended from a thread, hanging just out of reach.
In the world of The Maids, words are weapons: They're usually designed to injure. Both maids get a quivering erotic thrill out of turning a firehouse of abusive verbiage on each other. Eventually, though, they want more than just words. They want action. They want violence. They want real transgression. They want these things so passionately that their criminal plots ultimately begin to take on a spiritual quality.
The Maids is a comedy, but it's a comedy floating way outside the box of ordinary humor. It's not exactly hilarious, really. You won't be choking with laughter. But the play is very funny, in a subtle, perverted sort of way.
Genet's wall of words has a strange, dreamy feeling about it. I'm also told he originally specified that young boys in drag are supposed to play the two maids. In this production, women play all three parts, and the set has an elegant conventional appearance that clashes nicely with the freakish nature of the script. Mix together Lewis Carroll, Merchant Ivory and Quentin Tarantino, and you might get something roughly like The Maids.
I have to say that, although it took me a few minutes to get absorbed in Genet's absurdist alternate universe, this is a really enjoyable production. All three women fully inhabit this weird world from the first words they speak. Under the direction of Joe Feldman, they've found the right groove. From their mouths, Genet's words come out like alluring atonal chamber music, and this cast really does an excellent job of mining the disharmony for all it's worth.
All three performers are great, but I especially like the casting of Pohlé as Madame. Pohlé doesn't enter the stage until late in the play, but when she does she looks like she's 12-years-old, which makes her bossy narcissism all the more amusing.
One of the more entertaining aspects of The Maids is that it's constructed like a magic onion. As the play progresses, Genet strips off layer after layer, tricking you at several turns as he reveals his characters to be not quite what you first expected. Come be tricked. This play deserves a packed house.
The Maids, a play by Jean Genet, directed by Joe Feldman, runs through Oct. 9 at SolArts (712 Central SE). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $10 general, $8 students/seniors. 244-0049.