Classy Dames in Desperate Straits
Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in ‘The Maids’ at City Center
By BEN BRANTLEY
Some real classy dames are tearing up the joint at City Center, where the Sydney Theater Company is performing its rip-roaring production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids” as part of the Lincoln Center Festival through Aug. 16. You might add that these ladies, embodied in the august personages of Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, are stinking up the place, as well.
Their language, with its sewer-mouth talk of body odors and functions, is as rank as it is florid. Then there’s that fancy perfume they keep spritzing on their private parts. And, oh, those cut flowers — what looks like acres of them — which are flung about at random and used as vigorous instruments of flagellation.
A less-charitable theatergoer might detect another aroma within this bouquet of smells: the whiff of acting so ripe it’s gone rotten. But to object to that would be to miss the point of what the comfort-zone-trashing director, Benedict Andrews, and his brave cast of three — which is rounded out by the smashing young actress Elizabeth Debicki — are trying to achieve here.
That would be a portrait of people who are acting from desperation, trying on poses (and clothes and makeup) in a furious, futile bid to achieve some sense of identity. Becoming someone else to become yourself, and flailing and failing, is a sad and sorry existential process in “The Maids,” which was inspired by a true story of homicidal sisters working as domestics.
The first play written by Genet, the professional outlaw and great poète maudit of the 20th century, this 1947 drama is about acting as being, and being as nothingness. Small wonder that the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre embraced it so heartily.
Whether New York audience members will clasp this unlovable show (newly translated with contemporary references and vulgarity by Mr. Andrews and Andrew Upton) to its bosom is another matter, especially if they’ve mortgaged their apartment to buy scalpers’ tickets. It is, to put it bluntly, a mess, in ways both intentional and unintentional.
Featuring a multimedia, dimension-scrambling set by Alice Babidge that suggests the world’s ritziest walk-in closet, the show throws in everything but the kitchen sink. No, scratch that; there is a kitchen sink. It is loud, lurid and often impossible to follow, even if you know the play beforehand.
And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
That’s largely because of Ms. Blanchett, who won the Oscar this year for Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” and has been seen to dazzling effect in New York with the Sydney Theater Company productions of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Uncle Vanya.” Once again, she proves herself to be the ruling mutation master among contemporary actresses.
Ms. Blanchett portrays Claire, the younger and (marginally) meeker of the two title characters, who with her sister, Solange (Ms. Huppert), regularly acts out the fantasy ritual of murdering their rich and gorgeous employer, known only as Mistress, played by Ms. Debicki. (On this night, Claire gets to be Mistress, while Solange portrays Claire.) In doing so, Ms. Blanchett would seem to deploy every theatrical tool that she has at her command, though I suspect she still holds a few in reserve to surprise us the next time we see her.
Within minutes — no, seconds — she switches from the tones and postures of self-effacing servility to raging aristocratic arrogance, from little-girl passivity to assaultive sexuality. She truly contains multitudes. The wonder is that we believe every one of these self-contradicting displays, even though we know that Claire and the actress playing her are just, uh, acting. And she forces us to the uneasy conclusion that acting may be all there is in life.
That may also be implicit in the performance of Ms. Huppert, one of the French screen’s most fearless and incisive stars. But it’s hard to make that assessment, given that her thick accent renders her unintelligible for much of the time. Her scrappy, fierce Solange is a whirling dervish of acrobatic energy, for sure.
She matches Ms. Blanchett’s Claire in her intense, whiplash physicality but not in tonal variety. Ms. Huppert also tends to mime her lines with fervent comic exaggeration, suggesting a visitor from the Planet French Music Hall. Is there any way that Solange and Claire could really be sisters? And is it possible that their Mistress, no matter how socially myopic she is, could ever confuse one with the other?
I’m assuming there’s method in the casting here. Genet wanted “The Maids” to be performed by men, to emphasize the gap between a person’s self-perception and the gaze of those who look upon him. Ms. Huppert’s blatant dissimilarity to Ms. Blanchett discounts any possibility of our accepting “The Maids” on easy naturalistic terms.
So, too, does the production’s use of simultaneous video projections (by Sean Bacon), captured by camera operators who are visible behind the set’s transparent side walls. Sometimes the camera creates still lives out of the flowers, dresses and objets de luxe that are thrown about.
On other occasions, it lingers on the faces of the actresses, and you realize that the women on the screen are not the same as the characters you’ve been watching through the haze of stage lights. (Nick Schlieper did the intricate lighting.) Well, at least not in the cases of Ms. Blanchett and Ms. Huppert, who appear much older and wearier in merciless close-up.
Ms. Debicki, who is in her early 20s, looks pretty much the same, which is ravishingly unlined. And you see the ingenuity in Mr. Andrews’s casting the Mistress as a spoiled debutante type rather than the usual middle-aged society matron. Excess, after all, is an accessory that looks attractive only on the young.
This Mistress can still get away with changing her attitudes and emotions the way she changes clothes. Once she makes her entrance more than halfway through the play, you see how precisely Claire has been imitating her. Such exact mimicry makes both women seem pathetic, but especially Claire, because she’s now too old for that part.
That Ms. Debicki sometimes resembles the Cate Blanchett of 20 years ago makes the parallels all the more disturbing. And the double act they perform toward the end of the production’s uninterrupted 115 minutes makes you uncomfortable in ways I imagine might have pleased Genet, who was notoriously hard to please.
By the way, in the very first pages of the Playbill for “The Maids,” you’ll find a double-page ad for a Giorgio Armani fragrance, featuring an exquisitely serene model. That’s Ms. Blanchett. It seems highly appropriate that onstage the same woman is tearing that image to shreds. This perfume goddess is stinking to high heaven. I mean that as a major compliment.
Bonus Cate's best Pictures: Our Beloved Legend Lauren "Betty" Bacall and Cate Blanchett