The Maids


A Busch-league version of ‘Maids’


Life is just a row of mirrors intended to confound the oppressed, confuse the sensitive and – with any luck – mislead the audience.  So thought the good, bad and ugly Jean Genet, whose once scandalous play “The Maids” is now at the Classic Stage Company in a neatly resonant staging by David Esbjornson.

Genet is a writer whose time has not only come but has probably gone.  He once meant to shock but now scarcely surprises.  Yet there is a vague, tricky and sensual poetry in his work, a feel for the dogma of political unorthodoxy, and a realization of the theater as a place of cruelty and wonder.

Even now, when the fashion has worn thin, you can’t altogether ignore him – although it must be admitted that the American theater does its not inconsiderable best – only  “The Maids” has really captured our theater’s corporate imagination.

So this is the CSC’s latest excursion into Genet-land – Christopher Martin’s earlier regime having already staged “The Balcony” and, of course, “The Maids” – but as a special frisson one of the Maids is played by that drag-queen and vampire-lesbian extraordinaire Charles (They ad Faces Then) Busch.

Genet intended the Maids and their Mistress to be played by men – actually the original idea was young boys – although when first produced in Paris by Louis Jouvet in 1947 the roles were given to women, as they were in the weird 1975 movie.

The first time Genet’s casting concept was acted upon came in 1957, when Herbert Ross created a fascinating ballet version for three men, which was apt, for Genet himself had explored much the same themes of identity, role-playing and death is his own solitary ballet libretto for Janine Charrat’s 1948 “adame miroir.”

Esbjornson, also responsible for the imaginatively squalid setting, has put the play into a Paris basement, the tawdry squatter home of three drag-queens – the dominant boss, Madame (Seth Gilliam) and the charade-playing maids, Claire (Peter Francis James) and Solange (Busch).

The Fault of this surface-wise obscure play is oddly enough its clarity – which Esbjornson’s staging very reasonably emphasizes.

But once you accept the idea of murderous charades, leather-games dressed up in satin and feathers, and a sense of decadence almost childlike (certainly childish) in its simplicity, the play’s plot is like a nursery rhyme for the needlessly, but pitiably, vicious.  No ambiguity here.

It works, but so what?  All is left are the now tattered remnants of Genet’s odd poetic vision, and the violently dramatic opportunities (not to be sneezed at) offered to the cast.

Busch is a wonderful actor, here giving a kind of Lillian Gish impersonation, an interpretation sly, mean and innocent by turn.  The most subtly depraved of these three emotionally satiated transvestites, he slinks through the ritualistic action suggesting a wilted artificial flower.  Unfortunately, so, nowadays, does the play.