The Maids Cleaned Up Are Still Women
Welcome to the maids’ world—women struggling for power, women playacting power, women redefining power. The Dresser isn’t talking American politics here, though maybe she should, but rather Washington, DC’s Scena Theatre’s production of Jean Genet’s earliest play The Maids.
The maids in Genet’s play are sisters and Claire, the younger of the two, has taken responsibility (though Genet makes the audience think it could be either of the sisters or their employer) for a letter written to the police that has gotten their mistress’ husband arrested. Claire is fixated on Madame. She wants to be Madame. When Madame is not home, the sisters wear her clothes and role-play Madame and maid. What goes on is far more complicated than the Dresser plans to recount.
BIRTHING ANOTHER LADY OF FLOWERS
When the play opened at Scena Theatre on November 12, 2007, Jenifer Deal as Claire-as-Madame emerged from a bathtub filled with flowers. She sang Edith PIaf’s signature song “La vie en rose.” The Dresser thinks director Gabriele Jakobi has selected great details that put Genet front and center of this production.
Like Piaf, Genet was the illegitimate child of a mother who abandoned him. The Madame’s bathtub serving as Claire’s launching vessel into the play begs comparison with the womb. Also Jakobi’s Claire coming out of the tub of flowers brings to mind Genet’s first novel entitled Notre Dame des Fleurs (Our Lady of Flowers). In this sexually outrageous but poetic novel about one man’s journey through the underworld of Paris and based on details from Genet’s life, are such characters as the drag queen Divine, the pimp Darling Daintyfoot, and the young hoodlum and murderer Our Lady of Flowers. As Jenifer Deal/ Claire-as-Madame emerged from the tub and led with one outstretched pointed foot, she commanded Solange (Madame’s other maid and Claire’s sister) to help her strap on Madame’s beautiful shoe.
The Dresser does not want to murder her reader with obvious points of connection, but she thinks she must say for those who have never seen a production of The Maids that the two sisters throughout the play plot Madame’s death. So let’s agree, Dear Reader, that the Dresser has taken care of how Claire connects to Daintyfoot and Lady of Flowers. What’s a little more tenuous, and possibly out on the edge of theater politics, is how the Dresser connects Claire to the drag queen Divine. First the Dresser says humbly that she had never seen a production nor read the script of Les Bonnes (The Maids) before attending Scena’s production and, quite frankly, had not spent time with Genet’s other works, but what she has learned since seeing Scene’s production of The Maids is that Genet had a proclivity for sexual perversion and it threads through much of his work. As Claire-as-Madame emerges from the tub of flowers, the Dresser kept expecting confirmation that the actor was in drag.
Photo by Ian C. Armstrong
Having arrived at the theater on the late side, the Dresser had not focused on who the actors were. Ms. Deal is a tall, large-boned person. She is physically beautiful, but then there are men who are also as beautiful as any woman could be. So the Dresser kept waiting for that shoe to drop. And as it turns out, so did the Dresser’s seatmate poet Martha Sanchez Lowery who spent her early years growing up attended by family maids in Bolivia.
CHOOSING WOMEN OVER MEN
Wiry and shorter Nanna Ingvarsson as Solange, the older and dominant sister, could have easily been made up as a king, the counterpoint to the better-known drag queen. However, director Jakobi did not go there. Ingvarsson as Solange plays a woman who is sometimes weak as feminine stereotypes are presented in Western culture and other times ferociously aggressive as men are allowed and often expected to be in our culture. Given that Madame treats her maids like they are animals, telling them they stink, but occasionally tossing them bones of reward for their loyalty, the Dresser did not feel frustrated that Jakobi’s Claire and Solange never came out in gender-bending revelations. Jakobi steadily anchors the interpretation of Genet’s characters to a woman’s world centered on clothing that occasionally allows glimpses of men who rock the power structure between women. Costume designer Alisa Mandel creates a good balance between what the Dresser calls the maids communist pajama uniforms and Madame's elegant gowns.
BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE
Genet has the flesh-and-blood Madame (played by Danielle Davy, looking and speaking a lot like the original baby-voiced blond bombshell Jean Harlow) showing up in the second half of this one-act work.
Photo by Ian C. Armstrong
Madame’s presence alters the reality of Genet’s play because she stops Claire and Solange from their playacting. Jakobi ratchets up reality by having Solange, who is ordered by Madame to get her taxi, not only open a door that leads from the interior of the Warehouse Theatre where Scena is housed to a sidewalk on Seventh Street in northwest Washington, DC, but also exit through that door and leave it opened.