Words and images are like shells, no less integral parts of nature than are the substances they cover, but better addressed to the eye and more open to observation. I would not say that substance exists for the sake of appearance, or faces for the sake of masks, or the passions for the sake of poetry and virtue. Nothing arises in nature for the sake of anything else; all these phases and products are involved equally in the round of existence. — George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies
The epigraph from George Santayana opens up Erving Goffman’s groundbreaking book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. One of the great studies of social roleplaying, the thesis of the book — namely that all human interaction is theatrical — is not just Shakespeare redux. It proposes that the self is not the determiner of the roles one plays in life, but rather that it is the product of such roles and the interactions one has with others while playing. Without role playing, there is no social language and thus no society.
Goffman’s book was first published in 1956 — coincidentally, but not surprisingly, the same year that The Maids debuted in English. Jean Genet’s play picks up on the same themes as Goffman. The Maids is a grand essay on the nature of performing “reality,” which, of course, exists only as a performance itself.
The titular maids, Solange and Claire, spend the entire play performing, not just as characters but also as themselves and as themselves playing another social role. At any moment either of them can be performing as Claire the maid, Claire the sister, Claire as Madame, Claire as Solange, or as Solange the maid, Solange the sister, Solange as Madame, Solange as Claire. And that’s just in the present tense. There is also a future tense in which both maids can take on another role: murderer.
In Genet’s somewhat Romantic vision, crime represents an escape from obligatory role playing and social obeisance. Bourgeois life is little more than a series of soul-crushing, identity-stripping roles one must play politely and without question; to question those roles is itself a crime. Civic life is forever “front stage,” where roles of power lord over roles of want. Genet’s criminals have access to what Goffman would call the “backstage.” They get to peer behind everyone’s performance and see the genuine “truth” of people as they are when not performing for others. From these backstage glimpses one can then form an identity that is truthful and unencumbered, far beyond the bland melodramas of bourgeois existence. Crime is the way out of a life of role playing into genuine self-actualization. And if one has to steal or kill in order to claim one’s own identity, so be it.
Such are the stakes for Genet’s maids.
I’ve always loved the play, so it’s nice to see it return to Seattle, this time with a fresh translation, and even better to see it performed by the Akropolis Performance Lab.
Akropolis Performance Lab’s production emphasizes the fluidity of roles by introducing the play with a short pantomime. Three women in identical lingerie take up three different positions, one at the bed, another at the mirror, the other at the chaise. Each makes a gesture. Then they switch gestures, and positions. Each makes a complete circuit of the room, performing each gesture in each position. Then blackout. The drama proper begins immediately afterward.
It is an effective approach, as effective as setting the play in a mirrored chamber, where the audience sees not only the play and the other audience members but also reflections of the play and of the other audience members and of themselves. They watch themselves watching themselves watching others perform. The small scale of the production, with only a small audience invited to each performance, intensifies the drama further.
Choosing such an environmental setting complete with the ambience, if you will, of Zhenya Lavy playing Erik Satie’s diaphanous yet supremely frustrating piece Vexations shows the genius of Akropolis Performance Lab’s polyphonic approach to theater.
Vexations on its own is one of the greatest works of durational art in any medium. It is a short essay in tritones that takes about one minute to play its thirty-six notes at a tempo marking of 52 MM or trés lent, as the composer marks. A full performance however consists of 839 more repetitions. (Here the performance is abridged: about 42-45 repetitions depending on the drama.) Where the drama of The Maids is, to use a musical metaphor, a study of theme and variations, Vexations is its very antithesis: a study in irrefrangible repetition. Because of its elusive, repetitive nature however it is a perfect sonic environment for the play that calls into conflict the two approaches of music score and theatrical score. Uniting the two in the same space is sly and ingenious, creating a kind of “furniture music” for the performers and audience.
As usual I have the greatest of respect for the Akropolis actors. I adore Emily Testa’s work wherever I see it and her performance as Solange is excellent, as I expect, with her studious attention to ritual movements and her gift for verbal dynamics fully on display. The revelation for me came as I watched Annie Paladino when, about halfway through, it occurred to me that I’d been yearning to see her in something exactly like this, a role where her lush voice and generally reserved physicality begin to crack open and reveal something much, much darker and forceful than she traditionally gets to play. And it’s a marvelous thing to behold. As Claire she is both an outstanding support and foil for Emily Testa’s elder sister role.
I also greatly enjoyed Catherine Lavy as Madame. In previous productions I’ve seen, Madame is much older. She is stiff, arrogant, effete, bland yet showy, like a retired opera diva — a truly stereotypical petit bourgeoisie one would expect to see in a TV version of Flaubert or Zola. As she is one who has lived far more of life than she legitimately deserves, it is no surprise that her maids would plot her demise and it is easy for the audience, too, to side with the maids. Having a much younger Madame creates a different effect. Mx. Lavy is far too charming to wish her an untimely end. Instead she comes across as a young woman with just a little too much privilege but also as one who could just as easily have been in a rushed, arranged marriage that is mildly unpleasant for her, and yet one in which she must pretend that she is the dutiful society wife. Such an interpretation makes it difficult if not impossible to root for the maids in their plot, yet one must empathize with them anyway for there to be a true drama. Mx. Lavy’s gift for speaking as though she is alternately oblivious, alternately unconvinced of her own words, and alternately dead serious plays into this quite well, and its refreshing to see her get a chance to stretch her acting muscles more than I’ve seen in the past.
All in all, The Maids/Vexations makes for an extremely satisfying evening. I’m a big fan of the Akropolis Performance Lab’s chamber theater approach for plays like this and The Glas Nocturne. It’s the exact opposite of the rubbish I’ve had to sit through at the larger theaters in town, where bigger pretends to be better and the inflexible staging and scene design strips all but the most kitchen sink naturalism of gravity and meaning. I’d love to see a more general revival of “small is beautiful” in Seattle theater, but until that happens, The Maids/Vexations will do.