Friday, November 18, 2016

Against authority

Eastside Road, November 18, 2016—

FOR A COUPLE of weeks now I've been thinking, from time to time, of the production we saw on Sunday, November 6, of Jean Genet's play The Maids. It was the last of three plays we'd seen produced by A Noise Within, the Pasadena professional repertory company we have subscribed to for the last fifteen years. (I wrote previously about the other two plays: Molière's The Imaginary Invalid and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia: you can read those comments here and here.)

It was a very strong performance of a quite effective production of a neglected major play, cast on three tremendously effective actresses; and its narrative intensity, concerning the fantasies of two sisters who serve as maids-in-waiting to a rich bourgeoise, left me (and the rest of the audience, I'm sure) drained. Still it seemed to me the next day, as we drove the four hundred miles home, that it would be easy to write about it. I had two entries into the task. The benign one concerned an old lady we met twenty years ago, a well-to-do Frenchwoman, who lived in a 17th-century fort with her even older bonne, the maid who'd attended to her when she was a little girl, and who'd been given to her by her parents as a wedding present, and who was now so old and decrepit the roles had been reversed, and the old lady was waiting on her maid.

That's a much prettier story than the one Genet based his play on, a crime which in fact took place in France in the early 1930s, when two sisters from an unprivileged family, gone into service, developed over the years a fantasy life feeding apparently on their resentment for their employer, each in turn playing the part of Madame, acting out a fantasy in which they murder her.

That gave me my second insight into the play: it is, of course, I thought, a parable of the French Revolution. An orderly structure prevails, but it rests on the exploitation of the lower orders, who ultimately rebel — in this unfortunate case killing the master(s). That would be an interesting way to address this play, particularly on the eve of our national election, which threatened, I thought, to install an autocrat in the White House.

But then before I could find the time to sit down and write the election took place, the day after we returned home; and the returns came in, much more quickly than I'd expected, and here we are.

I had thought all along Trump would prevail. I thought so during the primary campaign, when everyone around me disagreed; and I thought so after the conventions, when everyone around me called me a pessimist. It's not much comfort in this case to be able to say "I told you so."

If The Maids is a parable of the French Revolution, it is also a parable of the Trump campaign. Much of the electorate seems to have been in the position of those poor sisters: working (or not) in a system that provides them employment and identity within a context they don't understand, don't appreciate, don't want, a system that has evolved mysteriously within economic and cultural conventions they don't fathom (nor do I, often); resenting the system, their dependency on it, their invisibility within it from the point of view of those who profit from it.

The sisters cope with all this by developing a rich fantasy life. When their mistress is away they take turns playing her role, each as mistress forcing the other as maid to ever more degrading and servile positions — this while at the same time conspiring to escape their situation by murdering their employer. You don't have to look far for an analogy with those unemployed and underemployed Trump supporters who aspire perhaps one day to be Trumps themselves, if not in terms of wealth at least in terms of self-certainty; and who in the process will likely wind up destroying the fabric that provides their pittance, unsatisfactory as it is.

The Noise Within production, designed by Frederica Nascimento and directed by Stephanie Shroyer, respected every intention of Genet's script, translated by Bernard Frechtman. The set distributed the casual artifice of an Art Deco apartment across a big stage; the cheap opulence suggested Madame's detached, airy yet somehow troubled persona well, important because the character does not actually appear until quite late in the one-act, ninety-minute play.

The two maids were well cast and splendidly acted. Donnla Hughes was Solange, the elder sister, withdrawn, furtive almost, observant, calculating. Jaimi Paige was Claire, the younger, emotional, distressed, nervously sensitive, impulsive. They were convincingly older and younger sisters, and Genet depends on that intimate relationship as he investigates the closeted nature of their position. But they went deep into the individual qualities of the personalities as well, suggesting distinct meanings of both the position and their responses to it.

Emily Kosloski played Madame, an interesting role that packs a lot of depth and detail into relatively infrequent and restricted stage presence. Here the production helped, for she is as present figuratively, through both stage decor and the sisters' fantasies, as she is physically when on stage.

It's not important at this point, with the entire Noise Within fall schedule now behind us, but I want to mention that the final two scheduled performances of The Maids were cancelled, in order to add two extra performances of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. We have subscribed to the company for years both for the quality and range of the productions and for the convenience of seeing three plays within just a few days. We'd been planning to see the final weekend, which would have been just last week; in the event, we had to reschedule. At this point I think it's just as well: seeing Genet's play after the election might have been just too depressing. In any case the company did everything it could to facilitate our last-minute change.

I'm sorry, though, that they decided to sacrifice Genet to Stoppard. I suppose box office had a lot to do with this. If so, another indication of what's wrong these days: publicity, entertainment value, and vogue override investigation, thoughtful interpretation, and substance. That's how it is these days.

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