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Review: In 'The Maids,' off-kilter women at war

Created: 08/12/2014 9:53 AM KAALtv.com
By: JENNIFER FARRAR

NEW YORK (AP) — Deception, jealousy, sadistic insults and a lot of spit — it's all in a day's work for the downtrodden, sisterly duo of servants in French playwright Jean Genet's 1947 dark, avant-garde psychodrama "The Maids."

Sydney Theatre Company's star-driven, antic-filled production, the theatrical epicenter of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival, features Cate Blanchett and French film star Isabelle Huppert as the weary, psychopathic siblings, and Elizabeth Debicki as their sexy, callous young Mistress.

Using a new adaptation by Andrew Upton and director Benedict Andrews, the production is kaleidoscopic, both searing and comical, with intense performances by Blanchett and Huppert and a different kind of wonderfully off-kilter turn by Debicki.

Alice Babidge's stylish modern boudoir and sumptuous costumes lend a surreal air to the vulgar, absurdist slapstick behavior of the maids as the play begins. The set is laden with a vaguely threatening over-abundance of flowers. A giant projection screen looms above, supplied with images by hidden cameras and visible camera operators roaming behind darkly mirrored walls. Random photos and fishbowl lenses add layers of conflicting elements to a play that is already fraught with elusive meanings.

Blanchett's portrayal of Claire is both histrionic and genuinely haunted, whether she's sweeping around the stage in diva-like imitation of her Mistress or reflecting despairingly about her misery.

Huppert is more introspective as older sister Solange, although her skillful, irony-laden and increasingly bitter performance is undercut by her thick French accent and childish physical comedy that has her hopping around like a merry chipmunk. Blanchett retains her Australian accent, deliberately adding to the contrasts between sisters who already look nothing alike.

The oppressed maids role-play with their Mistress' expensive clothing in her bedroom whenever she's out. They regularly enact a nasty, eroticized and violent fantasy in which they exhibit their love-hate relationship with their employer and with themselves. Their stories, which Claire claims are intended to calm them, eventually incite them to attempt enactment of their murderous hatred.

When the sisters realize their petty games have finally put them in genuine peril, their barely-concealed desperation is well-matched by their Mistress' comical oblivion to reality. The statuesque Debicki sails confidently onstage as they plot to poison Mistress, and proceeds to fling her entire pricey wardrobe heedlessly to the floor while unleashing a glorious, narcissistic tantrum of shallow emotions.

Uncaring about their suffering and even their names, Mistress alternately flatters and then debases her servants, gives gifts and then snatches them back, all while moaning about her perceived troubles. Debicki gives an edge of madness to her insular, upper-class character, who almost literally rubs the maids' noses in the fact that her youth, beauty, privilege and wealth are forever beyond their reach.

Genet based his story about class struggles, poverty, identity and insanity on the real French murder of a woman and her daughter by their maids. He intended it be shocking, and Andrews' entertaining if sometimes puzzling 21st century interpretation definitely retains shock value and uncomfortable moments. The real value, of course, lies in experiencing these three brave performances.

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Online: http://www.lincolncenterfestival.org

(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)