by ALEX CARNEVALE
Some things are too good for critics.
In the Lincoln Center Festival production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, Cate Blanchett prances around the stage in her undergarments until that special moment when Isabelle Huppert begins humping her red dress and choking her as anyone with a brain would want to be throttled. If you can’t enjoy watching Cate playact sadomasochism with one of the finest French actresses of her generation, something is probably wrong with you.
There is something completely non-American about The Maids that is impossible to translate, even when the words themselves are done better than they ever have in a rewrite by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton. Any production of this oft-staged comedy is on some level shameful and difficult to watch, since there is no amount of crossdressing or wackiness or satirical commentary that makes people feel OK about servants betraying their employers.
Why do so many theatrical reviews read like histories? It really doesn’t matter how anything was performed in the past. The past no longer exists, I think this was a major theme of Mr. Holland’s Opus or perhaps The Nutty Professor.
Now, today, you can see Cate Blanchett writhe and spread her legs as Claire, the youngest of the two maids in the employ of Madame (Elizabeth Debicki). When older sister Solange (Huppert) puts her hand in her sister’s mouth as she is straddling her, there is not a lot of thinking that has to go on to realize that this is the kind of fun we never end up seeing anywhere except pirate romance novels. The overall cumulative effect is something like if the girl of your dreams suddenly began slobbering all over you, jamming her fingers in your mouth.
The fact that a play from the late forties could still have any shock value in it at all shows how prudish American culture is, but that is the not-so-interesting part of watching Blanchett smear her makeup and monologue the inner desire she has to poison her fickle employer. Murder is less shocking than transcendent sex play; it is also a lot more understandable.
Cate’s ministrations eventually make you realize that, is it really so bad when Bradley Cooper’s girlfriend slobbers and jams her fingers down his throat?
Under the bright lights of NY City Center, Blanchett’s face oscillates like a sun dial. She is always the center of any action on the stage, just subtle enough to not be overwhelming. Director Benedict Andrews dresses her older sister up more modestly, like the young girl she is not. Huppert’s strong accent and sonorously low voice make her sound even more alien than her statuesque blonde sister, and the fact that she makes Blanchett’s Claire seem normal is the basic premise of this production.
At some point an actress like Blanchett is just playing herself, or off herself. The latter is a lot more fun. The best part of The Maids occurs when Elizabeth Debicki finally enters the proceedings as Madame halfway through the play, and the natural order of things returns to the household.
We always find it easier to laugh when the existing social order is intact. Disturbingly, the most regular arrangement of individuals comforts us. It was either William F. Buckley or Genet who taught the West that there was a reason things were the way they were. I suppose in some twisted way those two men were peers and co-conspirators.
Hilton Als called this version of The Maids “a rip-off”, I guess because there was a video screen, I am unclear on the actual reason. Watching a screen display what is already in front of you is a complete waste of time, but you have to remember that almost half the audience at the performance of The Maids I attended waited in line to get headphones that would assist with their ability to hear the show. If they squinted they might be able to tell Cate Blanchett apart from Elizabeth Debicki, but that would be the sole way they could do it. The only people who go to the theater are actresses, tourists and senior citizens, and it has always been this way.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Miles Away” – Philip Selway (mp3)
“Waiting for a Sign” – Philip Selway (mp3)