Playwright Jean Genet famously advised that the maids in his 1947 work be portrayed by men, ideally young men. This Oracle Theatre production more or less follows Genet’s instructions, juxtaposing the furry-armed John Arthur Lewis and Rich Logan against the set’s towering hillock of teacups and evening gowns. Claire (Lewis) and Solange (Logan), entwined sisters in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? mold, take turns playacting as their imperious employer, getting sinister kicks from dressing up and dressing down.
The camp factor here derives more from the quaintness of the psychosexually charged dialogue than from the cross-dressing players, both of whom choose that actorly accent halfway between Olde and New England so distractingly ubiquitous in American theater. Still, Lewis and Logan are effective Kabuki figurines, gliding with stirring dignity and forming deranged tableaux as they seethe and hatch plots. Elizabeth Lammer’s cinematic lighting design creates satisfyingly creepy patches of light and dark.
The cumulative effect is hypnotic, almost to the point of soporific. It’s claustrophobic being inside Claire and Solange’s tiny world. When Madame finally arrives, it’s worth the wait. Sasha Grishkov, a Russian-Israeli actress making her Chicago debut, nails the petulantly brutish Madame. Economical with her vain, fluttery gestures, exercising a vocalist’s range of subtle tones, Grishkov modernizes and electrifies a play that feels teeteringly close to no longer being avant-garde.