Volume III, Issue II Summer 2004

Genet and genre

By Charlene Baldridge


It's amazing how awareness of theatrical genres enriches the theatergoing experience. It's equally amazing how few theatergoers are aware of these genres. These individuals are found scratching their heads in the lobby post-curtain. They write nasty letters to theater managements.

That is not to say I am so enlightened and the masses are culturally unwashed; it is merely my observation of the close-minded state of Americans, even those who frequently go to the theater. Apparently what they want is a steady diet of what might be termed the well-made play. A current example that seems to please is the Backyard Productions' staging of Shelagh Stephenson's "Experiment With an Air Pump," playing through June 27 only at the Adams Ave. Studio of the Arts. The work is Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," lite. Easily understood, well acted and possessed of a bit of a mystery – though totally telegraphed and unsurprising.

Also currently on the boards are several plays bound to mystify those who want theater straight-up. This is due to two things: the aforesaid lack of understanding of historical genre and a generation/technology gap.

In the grand tradition of inscrutability, and redolent of such mysteries as Martin Crimp's "The Country" (wildly misunderstood last season at La Jolla Playhouse), is the Sixth at Penn production of Jean Genet's "The Maids."

It's a brave and risky production for a theater that lives hand to mouth.

The Maids It might behoove one to know that Genet (1910-1986) was a French absurdist playwright. He gives few clues just who these maids might be; indeed, upon curtain rise Claire (Laurie Lehmann-Gray) is dressed as the lady of the house, As Solange, Dana Hooley, dressed in typical maid attire, is the other. Eventually they switch roles in the sadomasochistic game, which seems to bring them near some kind orgasmic denouement.

The "real" Madame (Anne Tran) returns and with the help of her maids strips down to a delicious satin teddy. Upon learning that her lover has been released from jail, the mistress dons mesh thigh-high hose and very little else and rushes to a waiting taxi.

Who are these women? And why are they playing such absurd, angry, seemingly ceremonial games about domination, class, sex and murder?

"What on earth are you going to write about?" a mystified theatregoer asked afterwards. Well, if I were unaware of genre I would write about the fabulous underwear assembled by costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings and how good it looks on the ravishingly beautiful Tran. I would spend graphs on Kevin Judge's intentionally overstuffed set, George Ye's amusing sound collage, and co-producer Claudio Raygosa's imaginative video.

As marvelous as all the production elements are, they merely enhance the work's raison d'Ítre, which is to mystify and make one think.

Where might we be? Who are these women, really? Is the mistress real or just another player? Furthermore, is anything real, even in the "real" world?

I would not presume to explicate this work for another human being, only to suggest that one must experience the 90-minute work with an open mind and a bit of fore knowledge about Genet and his genre. Allow this delicious work to soak in; see what happens to awareness and perception. It's all right to ask questions, to be mystified, to be uncertain. That is the point. That is the joy. The "maids" slip in and out of accents as easily as they do garments. That is as it should be and part and parcel of Sam Woodhouse's cleverly staged production.

My only disappointment is that Dana Hooley's vocal, sexual and emotional pitch begins at such high dudgeon there is no place for her dominatrix to go. Glee should be apparent, but a more gradual accelerando and swell, as in a trio for chamber musicians – which this is – would make the work even better.

Other productions currently on local stages might mystify many conventional theatergoers. They are Jordan Harrison's "Kid-Simple," a radio play in the flesh, through July 11 at Sledgehammer Theatre and Rolin Jones' "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" through July 18 at the Old Globe. These stimulating new works, both written by playwrights under 30, are likely part of a new genre, aimed at a generation of theatergoers raised with other questionable realities named technology and science.

"The Maids" continues at Sixth at Penn through July 25.

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