MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Akropolis Performance Lab Serves Up Genet’s Subversive The Maids

Emily Testa as Solange in Jean Genet’s The Maids Mark Jared Zufelt/Aether Images
“Did I put on this dress to hear you sing about my beauty? Shroud me with hatred! Insults! Sputum!”

Even the process of booking an evening with Akropolis Performance Lab (APL) differs from the routine. There’s an aura of mystery to requesting an invitation to its current production of The Maids/The Vexations, which is under way until 24 November. The venue remains undisclosed until you’ve committed to actually attending.

Once arrived, you enter a room that’s been artfully converted into an almost uncomfortably intimate performance space — big enough to accommodate the three cast members required for Jean Genet’s play, an audience of 10-12 people tops, a piano, and a little bar. The aura is a blend of speakeasy and adventurous cabaret. A wall of mirrors serves as part of the set design, multiplying the spectators and actresses.

It all reinforces the hyper-self-consciously surreal atmosphere of APL’s remarkable interpretation. Jean Genet’s bold, one-act drama from 1947 (Les Bonnes en français) — his first play to be staged in Paris — was inspired by a real-life crime story that became the equivalent of clickbait news in 1933, when two sisters who were live-in French maids murdered their employer’s wife and daughter. But the very premise of a solid connection to “reality” at the most essential level — the sense of a real, authentic self — is subverted throughout the play, turning Hamlet’s sarcastic/melancholy “‘Seems,'” madam? Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems'” on its head.

Directed and designed by Joseph Lavy, APL’s production brings the point home by appending a preludial pantomime in which the three cast members, dressed in lingerie, strike varying exaggerated poses, interacting but interchangeable, prepared to shift roles on a dime.

And, on top of this, there’s a musical layer: the show actually begins with Zhenya Lavy — with Joseph, cofounding artistic director of APL — taking her place at the aforementioned piano and playing the enigmatic, sphinx-like harmonies of Erik Satie’s The Vexations: once, again, thrice, and over and over, through the pantomime, through the duration of the play.

Satie’s undated, single-page score (which has been variously described as an anti-Ring cycle and a kind of spell to get past a love gone sour) comes with the instruction “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” That total number of repetitions lasted over 18 hours when John Cage famously staged a presentation, but even at a fraction of that, Zhenya Lavy established a mood of archaic yet ironic ritual that perfectly suited the ritualistic anti-realism of Genet’s theater.

The play itself unfolds amid the accoutrements of the unnamed Madame’s wealth (or, at least, comfortably bourgeois lifestyle), as the maids Claire and Solange take turns rewriting the script of servitude, of mistress and servant. In the process, they enact rituals of domination and humiliation in all its connotations: sexual, political, social, religious.

Their shared, mutual fantasies of mutiny and sadomasochistic reversal climax in a plan to murder Madame with sleeping pill-laced tea, which will also solve the problem of her lover’s suddenly impending appearance, out on bail — after he had been denounced by Claire to the police and jailed.

Joseph Lavy also translated Genet’s text into an English that conveys the curious mixture of poetic filtering and religious ritual central to Claire’s and Solange’s game-playing (or is it even a game?) — aspects that get lost in more pointedly political renditions of the work on the English stage. Madame is also referred to as a kind of medieval “my lady” and, with her flowers and beautiful attire — briefly offered as gifts — creating a Madonna-like aura of reverence.

As Claire, Annie Paladino is spellbinding and dangerous, her ability to enter fully into each role as convincing as the speed with which she sheds one skin for the next. Her older sister, Solange, is given a complex, layered, deeply resonant performance by Emily Testa. One surprise of the casting is the youth of Madame (the excellent Catherine Lavy), which erases the generational distance between the characters and underscores the riddling interchangeability of identities.

All three are coached in APL’s characteristic focus style of ensemble-focused training, a refreshing, much-needed antidote to the default, watered-down “method” that dominates commercial theater and media. This company offers a wonderful, praiseworthy alternative to such predictable and formulaic theater-making.

Review (c) 2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Akropolis Performance Lab, review, theater, Uncategorized

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