Why has Absurdism never taken root in America as it has across Europe? After analyzing the plays of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet in his renowned study, The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin briefly pondered the question. What America seemed to lack, according to Esslin, was the deep disillusionment that sprouted up in the UK and France, the epicenters of Absurdism, as they languished in the lingering ashes of World War 2.
On this side of the Atlantic, we still had a strong sense of meaning and purpose, for the American Dream still flourished during the Ike Age. Watergate, Vietnam, and Edward Albee hadn’t yet dented our optimism — or our tough, leather-clad cynicism — while Absurdism percolated abroad.
Well, 75 years after the premiere of Genet’s The Maids, disillusionment and despair seem to be the most unifying features of American life. Coin of the COVID realm. So the times could hardly be riper for the gestation of new Absurdist playwrights in the Land of the Free, though inhabitants of MAGA World may have gotten a head start in their alternate universe.
Certainly, The Maids should be considered in-season at the Mint Museum, where a stylish and purposeful XOXO production is running through Aug. 14. We’ve waited long enough; since I last reviewed The Maids in 2002, we’ve hardly heard a peep around here from Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett, or Genet.
Over the past 35 years, Charlotte’s main proponents of the notoriously criminal Genet — thief, prostitute, smuggler, deserter — have been UNC Charlotte, where I saw The Balcony and The Maids in the late ‘80s, and Matt Cosper, who directed both the 2002 edition of The Maids at the Hart-Witzen Gallery and the current effort in the Mint Museum’s Van Every Theater. Imprisoned many times, “Saint Genet” (as Sartre called him) could have easily fit Esslin’s profile of disillusionment and despair.
Yet a look at Genet’s most notorious works (add The Blacks to those suspects I’ve already named) shows the Frenchman to be subversive, nihilistic, angry, rebellious, wickedly sarcastic, and restlessly playful. At the same time, The Maids is an especially oblique and mercurial text, tough on readers and even tougher on actors, directors, and audiences.
In his second shot at presenting Genet, Cosper takes the script by the scruff of the neck and bends it to his will, making the action more sensational and surreal, adding musical interludes for the sister maids, and taking charge of the denouement and the final tableau, making the experience easier for us to take in.
With an outstanding set and lighting from production designer Will Rudolph, and with composer Shannon J. Hager’s sound design deepening the spell, this may be the richest theatre experience we’ve had at the Van Every.
Rudolph captures the Louis-Quinze ambiance prescribed for Madame’s boudoir with his furnishings and eclipses the playwright’s wildest imaginings with his follow-through on Genet’s call for flowers-flowers-everywhere ornamentation. We seem to be watching Madame dressing up and admiring herself more convincingly here, waited on by her maid Claire, than we did at the Hart-Witzen 20 years ago. Yielding partway to Genet’s perverse suggestion that men play all three roles, Cosper had one man onstage as the action began.
Not this time. We can see in our playbills that this is an all-woman cast, but we still might think there’s a misprint even if we recognize Kadey Ballard and Kate McCracken when they first appear. It’s not long before Cosper’s players let us know that things are more than a little out of whack.
Two-time Blumey Award winner McCracken is noticeably histrionic, sometimes almost operatic as Madame, preening herself and striking attitudes. Ballard, QC Nerve’s 2021 Best Singer-Songwriter, is even more bizarre as Claire, veering from Southern drawl to bossy Irish brogue and then to a French accent. Then she shifts from sweet maid to bossy dominatrix, slapping Madame hard in her expensively powdered face.
Then an alarm clock goes off, bringing the ritual to a halt, and soon afterward, the phone rings — another sudden reversal that further excites and confuses us because it discombobulates the sisters. We gradually understand that two maid sisters have been playacting while Madame is away — Solange as Claire and Claire as Madame — fondling their mistress’s jewelry, modeling her dresses and lingerie, building toward the climax in the sisters’ fantasy when they will murder Madame.
But the alarm going off startles them, signifying that the real Madame is returning from her nocturnal partying. The telephone call brings news that Madame’s beloved Monsieur, whom they have cleverly contrived to send to prison — apparently an easy chore in Genet’s world — has been released on bail. The delicious jig-is-up panic between Ballard and McCracken, seasoned with a desperate mix of sisterly animosity and solidarity, weaves a wonderful red carpet for Jennifer Adams to make a serenely regal entrance upon as the true Madame.
And indeed, an exit door from the theater opens and Adams descends three straight flights of stairs to join the quaking siblings, instantly and effortlessly establishing her superiority and dominion. Adams is the diva that McCracken has pretended to be, her crises are as big as life, maybe bigger, and her dictates are to be followed.
Or at least Madame’s tragic and operatic sufferings are real until Claire stupidly blurts out that Monsieur has been released. In the blink of an eye, the air of fantasy and seething underclass resentment turns into a movie thriller predicament. Now if Claire doesn’t kill the real Madame before she gets to have a tête-à-tête with the liberated Monsieur, her mistress might get to the bottom of why her beloved was thrown into jail, and the two complicit maids could be facing some prison time of their own.
It’s urgent, for the impulsive Madame plans to rush out and rendezvous with Monsieur immediately, past midnight, at a designated place.
The 20-year interval since my last experience with The Maids was enough for me to have forgotten the outcome, even if Cosper weren’t bent on changing it. Curiously enough, the comical vibes from the three extravagant performances allowed me to feel a certain amount of detachment. After all, if the bumbling maids couldn’t manage to knock off Madame in multiple roleplaying sessions, what could we expect when it all had to become real, outside their hurriedly aborted play-within-a-play?
Yes, I could root for the maids because Adams had regally discarded feelings in favor of decorous posturing, her Madame never condescending to display any sort of interior. Cosper flips the chemistry between the females by making his Madame older than her servants rather than 5-10 years younger, as Genet prescribed. Somehow this Madame is less innocent in her imperiousness, more heartless than she might have been in Genet’s mind. The oppression of these maids by their mistress seems more severe.
At the same time, McCracken and Ballard point up the youthfulness and playfulness of the sibs, adding extra edge — and a bit of shock — to McCracken’s sweetly murderous Claire and Ballard’s wickedly cruel Solange. Even if you read Genet’s script tonight, you’ll be surprised tomorrow at the Van Every by how energetically and decisively this duo navigates the changes in mood, tone, and subject in their dialogues. One moment, they are in their ritual roles. Next, they’re themselves, bickering sisters, berating each other as Madame would.
For they admire the mistress they hate.
Late in the playscript, there’s a moment when only the audience should be able to see Claire. It’s a moment where Cosper would need to reconfigure his stage design to comply with Genet’s demands. Instead, he becomes wildly imaginative, with electrifying results.
The ghostly, demonic ceremony of flaming despair that concludes The Maids at The Mint remains in the spirit of the lurid script, if not the letter, becoming Genet and Cosper at their best. Perhaps the rogue playwright, beholding this director’s boldness and impudence, would have been as awestruck as we were.
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