‘The Maids’: mixing stage and screen at City Center

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themaids1The decision to present the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids” at City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival this month seemed like a major miscalculation.

A three character, one-set drama of the sort that would be ideally suited for a venue like the Booth Theatre on Broadway — seating capacity 766 — was booked into an enormous venue designed for concerts and dance extravaganzas, with 2,750 seats (that’s almost a thousand seats more than the largest theater on Broadway, the Gershwin, the home of “Wicked” for the past decade).

Because of where it was presented I initially resisted seeing the play despite my admiration for the two stars, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, in the roles of the murderous servants Claire and Solange.

What I didn’t know in advance of Saturday night’s performance was that director Benedict Andrews conceived the Genet play as a multi-media spectacle, with frequent use of projections on a giant screen, of key moments with close-ups of Huppert and Blanchett (and their fantastic, statuesque co-star Elizabeth Debicki) making it an intimate experience even for the theatergoers in the themaids2most far-flung areas of the house.

I’ve seen very creative use of video off Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop and at Yale Repertory Theatre, but nothing on the scale of what Andrews did with this version of “The Maids.”

The combination of the actresses’ big gestures on the vast stage — who knew that Huppert could be such a zany, stage-owning physical comedienne? — and their facial expressions on the giant screen made for a very exciting new form of theater.

“The Maids” turned out to be the perfect play for this sort of treatment because it is all about role playing and the shifting power dynamics between the two servants and their master, who is only known as “Mistress.”

In the first scene, Blanchett as Claire lords it over her sister as she plays out the role of their imperious boss. We learn that Solange sometimes plays master and that this gamesmanship during Mistress’ absence is the only thing that keeps the maids semi-sane.

The teamwork between Blanchett and Huppert was fantastic — no doubt honed during their earlier run in Australia — earning laughs and gasps. The physical manifestations of their love/hate relationship were sometimes frightening (Huppert appeared to be really walloping her co-star at certain points).

Theater purists would no doubt criticize the use of live-feed video during a stage performance, but I thought it was a very exciting — and apt — way to present performers who have worked extensively in both mediums. Sadly, due to the special summer festival booking, “The Maids” only ran 10 days. I hope Andrews returns soon with another play that he can use to test the boundaries of live theatrical performance.

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Joe Meyers

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