It seems fitting that any production of The Maids — the play that launched what came to be known as Theater of the Absurd — should be somewhat absurd itself. In the Lincoln Center Festival’s production (presented in association with the New York City Center), the keenest absurdity lies in the astounding contrast between the performances of Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett, who play two French maids, Solange and Claire. They are sisters faintly based on the case of Christine and Léa Pepin, siblings and domestics convicted of killing their employer and her daughter in 1933. In Genet’s stylized nightmare of their crime, the two maids act out a twisted fantasy of S&M class warfare, which consists of dressing as their employer’s wife, mocking and worshipping her simultaneously, upsetting her flower vases, and plotting her murder.
Blanchett, one of the finest actresses of our time, offers a polished, intense, gleaming inhabitation of Claire, her commitment shamanistic; her face an encyclopedia of captivating, honest expression; her physicality a masterpiece of confident technique. Huppert, on the other hand, serves us Amy Sedaris pretending to be a Muppet. Slighter and older than Blanchett, she plays Solange with a childlike lightness and slapstick glee, skipping across the stage as if on horseback, speaking with an accented lisp that’s only intelligible about 30 percent of the time, making fart noises, riding the train of a dress, and grabbing Claire’s crotch. Exactly none of what she delivers arrives with any gravitas.
You’re probably thinking that I’m insulting Huppert’s performance, but, in fact, she and Blanchett represent the two kinds of performances from which I derive the most pleasure. While it feels like a privilege just to be in the same room with Blanchett, it’s almost equally delightful to feast one’s eyes on the sheer oddity of Huppert’s clowning. One might say that the two actresses belong in different productions, but the audacity of combining these two approaches energizes the play in precisely the way it needs. Huppert takes the piss out of Blanchett, as well as the play’s author, Jean Genet — especially during those moments when his characters begin to speak in philosophical essays and stop interacting with one another. The stunning Elizabeth Debicki, as Mistress, splits the difference between Blanchett and Huppert: She’s a top-notch actress whose interpretation of her role makes many a sly nod to reality TV.
This high/low mash-up of acting styles is the type of risk I’m more accustomed to encountering downtown, especially in the work of The Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, and the hordes under their influence: Richard Maxwell, Radiohole, Jay Scheib, Daniel Fish, and others. It’s a sign that times have changed, really — yesterday’s revolutions are tomorrow’s institutions, Hedwig is on Broadway, for Pete’s sake. But I’m no fundamentalist — I find it exciting to see experimental ideas co-opted by a moneyed-up production of a 67-year-old play that is still fairly disquieting. The play is also sparklingly directed by Benedict Andrews and lavished with an Alice Babidge set worthy of a Madison Avenue boutique, and a striking, color-coordinated, high-fashion wardrobe. The performance is augmented by Sean Bacon’s sleek video design (also very Wooster-ish). Whether the apparently bourgeois audience of City Center recognized themselves in this raucous, messy production and felt the requisite outrage, fear, and angst, I doubt. But perhaps the struggle is the goal. Isn’t that why downtown continually reinvents itself?