Monday, April 14, 2008

"The Maids" at SF Playhouse


It's an interesting time to be talking about power. The political machines are currently in full force, and the chasm between the rich and the rest of us seems to grow wider every day.

That's why this is a perfect moment for Theatre Release to stage Jean Genet's "The Maids" at SF Playhouse. "The Maids" is, to be sure, a strange work. Absurd at times, almost relentlessly cruel, but also filled with fascinating language and characters. Claire and Solange are sisters in the service of Madame, whom they loathe. The two take turns playing Madame during their role play scenarios, in which they can actually speak the words they'd like to say to her.

I almost backed out of going when I heard the play was to be presented without an intermission. It's not that it's a long work, only 100 minutes, but without an interval, what was I going to do if it was as awful as I anticipated it might be?

My worries were abated when I saw the set. It's clear that Theatre Release (like virtually all small theatre companies) operates on a very tight budget. But they know how to make their staging investment go far. The single room depicted is enclosed by walls filled with graffiti and collages girdling the space. (Constriction and control are key themes of the play, and the set design reinforces this.) The floors are strewn with detritus, including several dozen latex gloves. From the moment you sit, you have the sense that something chaotic and uncontrollable is going on.

Yet the textual veneer is that of control, submission and servitude. Claire and Solange (both played by men, just as the role of Madame is) are almost always in physical contact with each other. Lewis Heathcote, Scott Nordquist and Daegan Palermo bring tremendous focus, intensity and physical power to the stage. I often feel that Bay Area actors bring a sense of "watch me" to their roles that creates emotional distance between the audience and the character. Their desire to be seen means the actor oftens gets in the way of the character, making it difficult for an audience to truly connect with the work. These three work with an amazing sense of commitment. I know they are acting -- I can hear it in their voices, in the phrasing of Genet's archly-romantic language. But the craft never gets in the way of the story the characters are sharing with us. I think that's a hard thing to do, and the cast is to be congratulated for it.

Also deserving of kudos is director Tom Bentley, who helms this piece with a sure hand. The pacing is lively, the movement is compelling, the staging and physical business all serves to illuminate the story and the characters who inhabit it.

"The Maids" isn't an easy show to watch. It's creepy and claustrophobic and it's not always easy to figure out who's being who at any given moment. But none of that is a reason not to go.

Here's the main reason to hit Goldstar Events and buy your tickets: you won't see a company more committed to their work than the artists behind the Theatre Release production of "The Maids." So support them. Buy a ticket.

I know I'm lining up to see the next thing Theatre Release puts on the boards, whatever it is.

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