THREE STARS [***]
The Maids' The Maids. Abrons Arts Center (see Off-Off Broadway). Devised by Sister Sylvester from a work by Jean Genet. Directed by Kathryn Hamilton. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through Nov 8. Buy tickets here.
Go to the experimental theater on a regular basis, and two things are guaranteed. You will be forced to watch an over-designed Woyzeck and you will see someone's take on Jean Genet's The Maids. The 1947 proto-camp Les Bonnes is Genet's hallucinatory retelling of a true-crime tale, in which two sisters, maids driven mad by humiliation, kill their mistress. Full of weird psychosexual games, the absurdist classic is catnip to budding auteurs, since it seems to yearn for a glossy, conceptual treatment. Yet director Kathryn Hamilton uses it as a springboard into the most unstylish thing imaginable: the real world. The refreshing result (half-documentary, half-Genet) is chaotic, but it's also productive and genuinely subversive; Hamilton gives us the kind of mess you learn from making.
The show begins with high-concept hullaballoo. A video designer (Brian Oh) and a dramaturg (Jeremy M. Barker) sit at tech tables; Solange (Isabel Sanchez) stuffs her mouth with Cheetos and raw egg, then vomits on the floor; Claire (Terence Mintern) struts aggressively into the audience. For about a moment, it's…really not good. Barker and Oh don't have enough to do, so they just sit looking bored. The design, full of video projected onto hanging white t-shirts and playground markings on the floor, provides vague visual noise. The avant-garde touches feel halfhearted and the situation seems dire. But luckily Hamilton's interest here is in the so-called real, in stripping away both Genet's sensationalism and the veil that shrouds domestic work. Two women, who have been moving around in the background, come forward to clean. They tut at the jumble in front of them, and so (looking abashed) the actors run for paper towels. Suddenly, the show comes into focus.
The bulk of the evening becomes an investigation into the lives of these two women: Laudicela Calixto and Rita Oliveira, actual local housekeepers who came to the States from Brazil. The pair relate stories from days on the job (“I always try on the shoes,” says Calixto), and tell us what they thought when Hamilton approached them to make the show. Moving between Portuguese and English, they are immensely charming. Oliveira browbeats an audience member for being underdressed at the theater (“Is this top a pajama?”) and dances a quiet samba alone, remembering her days as a cigar girl in a private casino. Calixto, the inspiration for the entire project, has a wonderful gravitas, even when she's coercing the audience into making a viral video. Sanchez does double duty as a translator, while Mintern acts out one of Calixto's usual days when she worked as a bank clerk in Brazil. The two performers each indulge in actorly moments, but there's a palpable sense of them entering into service, of trying to vanish, while the authentic maids take center stage.
Hamilton and Barker may try to fit too much into the show. Some elements graft naturally onto the central trunk (like a tart discussion on homicide that inspired Genet), while others do not. Yet even when the show doesn’t quite work, it contains its own critique. A moment will get too elaborate, too overwrought, and the central pair will look askance at it. “Kathryn, what is this play?” Calixto remembers saying when she first read the Genet. It's in her clear, wry glances that we come the closest to perceiving the bones under the silk of the original text—and what in our own modern existence we ought now consider absurd.—Theater review by Helen Shaw