Writer and activist Jean Genet's early play Les Bonnes (The Maids) was inspired in part by the real-life 1933 murder by two sisters, employed as maids, of their employer and her daughter. In his play, Genet transforms his sensationalistic inspiration into a stylized psychodrama that comments on forms of servitude and dependency, and the result has remained popular since its debut in 1947. Les Bonnes is the first professional production by L'Atelier Théâtre Productions, which "aims at presenting bold and inspiring European plays to a New York audience in the original language" and at creating a community of theater artists in New York who will blend American and European traditions. This production is performed in the original French, with English subtitles (by Lucy O'Brien, Mariam Mustafa, and Ellen Thome, undergraduates studying French at Fordham University) available on video screens at either end of the room, above and behind the audience, which is seated on the two short sides of the rectangular theater.
The titular maids play out their story entirely within their mistress's bedroom. When they are alone, Solange (Hélène Godec) and Claire (Laura Lassy Townsend) praise and berate one another, speculate about the outcome of their schemes to destroy "Monsieur," lament their failure so far to have killed "Madame," and reveal glimpses of their dreams and frustrations throughout. Perhaps the most concentrated expression of these dreams and frustrations occurs in what they call the "ceremony," in which one sister impersonates Madame, including wearing her clothing, and the other impersonates her sibling, upon whom, of course, abuse is heaped, sometimes upon request. The masochism of the power differential at times recalls Vladimir and Estragon playing at being Lucky and Pozzo in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and, like Beckett's vagrants, the maids are never quite able, as one puts it, to "finish." They renew their attempts to finally finish off the capricious, self-regarding Madame (Cloé Xhauflaire) when she returns home, but will they have to make do with the fantasy, impressively delivered by Codec, of dying as working-class heros for the murder and settle for an alternative but equally tragic route to freedom?
This production's Solange and Claire are barefoot and dressed entirely in baggy gray, with their hair tightly confined beneath kerchiefs, which creates a strikingly heightened contrast with the dresses and high-heeled shoes that they appropriate for their transformational ceremonies, as well as Madame herself, who materializes in gold and fur. Madame is also the only character who is able to come and go as she pleases. In an ingenious piece of symbolic staging, of which Godec and Townsend make great physical use, the maids' work gloves are attached by rubber tethers to the center of the stage, literally binding them to their work and to their mistress's apartment. The play's success in communicating the stifling atmosphere within which the sisters live renders the backlit white of the curtains that cover an unseen window, mirrored by Madame's wall-sized closet, simultaneously powerfully seductive and threatening. Most importantly, Codec and Townsend imbue their roles with an intensity that embodies the bond between the sisters as a crackling mix of hostility and a deep, borderline sensual love.
One of us understands spoken French better than the other, and for the other, the subtitles weren't always easy to read across the well-lit stage, but we agreed that the performance was compelling. Perhaps the violent desires of an oppressed class transcend language. Les Bonnes is both a satisfying revival of Genet and an auspicious debut for L'Atelier. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler