Cate Blanchett is an Australian stage and film actress with two Academy Awards (most recently for her appearance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine), three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three Golden Globe Awards and three BAFTA Awards. Isabelle Huppert is a veteran star of French cinema (Three of my favorites: Amour, Entre Nous, The Piano Teacher, and check out her new one: Abuse of Weakness). And together they are The Maids, Jean Genet’s disturbing 1947 drama currently at City Center as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. It is this year’s offering from the Sydney Theatre Company, the same team which over the past few years has brought us Hedda Gabler, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Uncle Vanya. Miss Blanchett has served frequently as both actor and director with the company. Her husband, Andrew Upton, is its current Artistic Director, a playwright, and in part responsible for this adaptation of The Maids.
As I found my seat, I realized just why a Lincoln Center Festival event was being presented on the main stage at City Center: clearly to maximize audience numbers for its limited run. Understandable, as the giant 2,257-seat auditorium was completely sold out. However, the production design made extensive use of a large overhead screen, and side glass walls featuring spy video cameras and more as an important part of its impact. Cameras projected intrusive facial and bodily close-ups and specifics of the chaos in the room up onto the screen. Those who could see them responded heartily. But I would estimate that some 300+ people in the balcony sat in muted ignorance with “obstructed views” not advertised as such, left out of the “jokes” and a significant part of the production’s impact.
I was one of them. So let this be my reminder TO NEVER SIT IN THE BALCONY AT CITY CENTER! … at any price, and especially for an intimate, quality presentation. This was a three-character play, not an extravaganza. They should know better, despite the box office pay-off! (That’s not going to happen.)
So there I was, mad as hell and missing a lot. And anyone who knows Genet’s work knows that this is not a fun play. It was based on a sensational Parisian murder case where two sisters, maids, viciously killed their employer, for no apparent reason. Taking off from there, Genet, who held that the whole social order was only an illusion, imagines an elaborate game of role-playing that brings into question what’s real and what’s mere appearance, play-acting. The maids are despicable human beings playing degrading games. Genet himself was a thief and prostitute, a repeat offender who had to be rescued from life in prison by Sartre and Cocteau, two of my college-years stars when I was introduced to existentialism. Of course The Maids became hugely popular with the existentialists and communist revolutionaries of the late 40’s and 50’s. Genet’s work is meant to shock, to degrade, to confuse, to offend, to alter the social structure, to change the rules of theatre. No, not fun at all. But very, very impressive.
All that being said, this was clearly a rich and masterful production of Genet’s work, and well worth getting to New York to see before it closes (tomorrow). It was one of the few purposeful, valid uses of screen projection on stage I’ve ever seen (what little I could see of it). I can guess that the camera work must have covered the reality of close-up decaying flowers and faces under the make-up, adding dimension to the “existential” disparity. Do I have that right? The rich, wide, attractive Parisian drawing room-like set in white, accented by the clothing and flowers to be scattered all over the place, evoked the decadence and the sham of the upper classes. Most of all the high-energy commitment of the two stars was spectacular, as was that of Elizabeth Debicki, making her American stage debut as their “Mistress.”
It was a privilege to have been with them to share in this adaptation of Genet’s writing, and to benefit from some prodigious levels of acting talent. But it did leave me badly wanting to see something funny, or to have a bath. … on top of being really mad at the Lincoln Center Festival for offering me the illusion of the pie and distributing the reality of the crumb.