SHERMAN — In the post World War II decades when France was the epicenter of revolutionary fervor — cultural, political, moral and philosophical — the Theater of the Absurd was born.
The terrible circumstances of history — the World Wars, The Great Depression, the Holocaust, and Stalinism, which together gave rise to the philosophy of Existentialism — also produced a theatrical form in which the bizarre behavior of the characters was meant to be a commentary on the cosmic unfairness that makes happiness impossible, and thus life meaningless. Therefore the most celebrated playwrights of the era were men like Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Eugene Ionesco, whose plays give audiences little to identify with, and less to hope for.
Poet-novelist-jailbird-thief-vagabond-prostitute Jean Genet was probably the most extreme literary icon of them all. A professed outlaw, and proud of it, Genet spent years in a penal colony as a teenager, and was kicked out of the Foreign Legion for homosexuality. Jean Paul Sartre called him a saint, and Jean Cocteau helped get his first books published.
In his public persona he supported every cause and group that opposed the existing social order, whether peacefully or violently, from the Baader Meinhof Gang and Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Red Army to the Algerians, the Palestinians, and the American Black Panther Party. In his writings, he reveled in an “in your face” portrayal of the mindset of some scary and unpleasant people who do not share the values of his audience, nor play by nice rules.
Now Sherman Players President Robin Frome has taken on the challenge of staging one of Genet’s plays, The Maids, to an audience whose capacity for alarm is generally limited to the likes of Miley Cyrus. In his Director’s Notes, Frome rightly points out that he has gotten a great effort from the three fine actresses, and that they worked hard to “capture the genre” of the play, and bring forth the “emotional pain” of the “absurdist characters.”
In this production, which opened last weekend, Katherine Almquist gives a magnificent performance as Madame, the aging, positively clueless, haute bourgeois Parisian mistress of the house. Madame presumes she is loved and admired by her two maids, the sisters Claire and Solange, because when she is in a good humor she kisses and coddles them and promises to reward them with her cast off finery.
In fact, like vengeful and vindictive slaves, the maids seethe with hatred, which finds expression in the elaborate, sado-masochistic games they act out as soon as Madame leaves the house. They take turns forcing each other to play the role of Madame, while they shower her with insults, and fantasize murdering her. It is these games which make up the bulk of the play which, without any intermission, takes quite a while.
Not a whole lot happens otherwise. The roles of the maids constitute a tour de force for Emma Nissenbaum as Claire (who shows quite a different side from her cheerful perkiness as Anne of Green Gables, the lead character in Sherman's recent production, which wrapped all three Anne stories into one show) and Kelly McMurray as Solange, who demonstrates a tight-lipped venom quite different from the daffiness she displayed in recently in the farce Run For Your Wife.
It’s true that we live in a time when the divide between rich and poor in America is both widespread and destructive, but I don’t see it as being analogous to the servant-master entanglement that frames this play. It’s true that today, Claire and Solange might be mired in the low-wage, meager benefits McJobs that the poor are relegated to — now that live-in servants are a thing of the past — but Madame from Greenwich wouldn’t be caught dead shopping at Walmart nor eating at McDonald’s anyway, so their paths would never cross.
If you’re studying French literature, or interested in Theater of the Absurd, or are intrigued with the rage of anti-social outlaws, you may indeed enjoy this production, especially given the effort that went into it. On the other hand, if you’re looking for trenchant criticism of American fatuousness and hypocrisy today, I think The Simpsons have a better handle on it (which may explain why that show is so popular in France).
(Performances at The Sherman Playhouse, 5 Route 39 North, will continue Friday and Saturday evenings until October 5. There is a Sunday afternoon matinee scheduled for September 22.
Tickets for all shows are $20 for general seating. Students may view any performance for just $10 using cash only and when accompanied by an official Student ID. No reservations are accepted for students requesting a student discount. Reservations can be made online at www.ShermanPlayers.org or by calling the box office at 860-354-3622.)