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The Maids

"Death is in the room with us."

The Maids
(L-R) Laura Butler Rivera and Folami Williams (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Jean Genet's 1947 drama The Maids is all about power dynamics. The original story centers on two French housemaids, Solange and Claire, who pass the time when their mistress is gone by acting out fantastical, often sadomasochistic, role plays centered around their murder of the Madame.

In José Rivera's new adaptation, which premieres at INTAR in association with One-Eighth Theater under the direction of Daniel Irizarry, the work's existing focus on class is intensified with the additional power dynamics of gender and nationality. The play is transposed to the Caribbean island of Vieques on the eve of the United States occupation in 1941, nicely evoked in Jorge Dieppa's immersive set design. History tells us that the growing American presence will inevitably unseat the Madame, here La Doña (played by Irizarry), from her powerful status as the mistress of a leading sugar manufacturer.

The deployment of gender in the play—which seems to have been a decision of the director—takes the form of casting both male and female performers to play the two maids (Casey Robinson, Laura Butler Rivera, and the playwright himself play Monique; Charlie Munn and Folami Williams play Ivette), either in alternation or, on occasion, simultaneously.

The gender-bending feels very de rigueur, but actually has its roots in Genet's own writings: In a novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (published four years before this play premiered), one of his characters states that he would cast a play for women with adolescent boys. Later, in an introduction to The Maids, Jean-Paul Sartre speculated on this idea being applied to Genet's play.

Dual or triple casting is a way for Irizarry to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to playing with this idea, but the conceptually provocative decision ultimately feels more like a distraction from, rather than a vital engagement of, Rivera's powerful adaptation. The text, which feels contemporary while also honoring the setting, occasionally casts the role play between the two women as a silly dalliance, but largely portrays it as forceful and disturbing.

When Robinson and Munn are on stage together, they confront one another in a campy fashion; there's a slapstick quality to their role playing, and they dance to Britney Spears every time one of them says the word "instrument." Butler Rivera and Williams, in contrast, fill the room with a tense, heavy, and visceral energy. Their game is anything but a game. If the men create a sense of whimsey, the women usher in one of foreboding. (The male Rivera, meanwhile, only takes on the role of Monique for an extended monologue and doesn't interact with either of the actors playing Ivette.)

Robinson, Munn, and, later, Irizarry's more humorous performances aren't flawed (nor, it should be said, are they played exclusively for laughs—these actors find themselves in serious moments as well), but if this experimental mode of the play finds itself in a power struggle of its own against the intense and unnerving performances of Butler Rivera and Williams, it's no contest. The latter two escalate a tête-á-tête into something explosive and gripping.

Irizarry's conceit flirts with gimmickry and deliberate confusion, and while it often navigates such tensions with proficiency, this is nonetheless extremely unlikely to appeal a more artistically conservative audience. Think of it like the election: anyone who tends towards the conventional will find little to like here, while loyal avant-gardists will celebrate the mayhem and mystery of the production.

For those audience members in between, Butler Rivera and Williams's performances may be decisive. When they occupy the stage, it's like we have a window onto a production from a parallel universe—one that is far more traditional than the one we're watching. And as we see what this more traditional production might have looked like, that product is so strong that, in those moments, it's hard not to wish that was the production we actually had all along.

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The Maids
By José Rivera
Adapted from The Maids by Jean Genet
Directed by Daniel Irizarry
with Laura Butler Rivera (Monique), Daniel Irizarry (La Doña), Charlie Munn (Ivette), José Rivera (Monique), Casey Robinson (Monique), and Folami Williams (Ivette)
Lighting Designer: Lucrecia Briceno
Set Designer: Jorge Dieppa
Sound Designer: Marcelo Añez
Costume Designer: Meghan Healey
Technical Director: Chris Cancel-Pomales
Stage Manager: Alejandra Maldonado
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
Presented by One-Eighth Theater at INTAR, 500 West 52nd Street (at 10th Avenue), 4th floor
Tickets: $25;, 212-352-3101
From 9/29/2016; opened 10/6/2016; closing 10/3/02016
Performance times: Thursdays–Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 5 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 10/6/2016 performance

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