2005_04_artsthemaids2.jpgSunday night Gothamist caught the final day of previews of “The Maids”, the last show of the season for the Jean Cocteau Repertory, and came away with mixed feelings. The play was Jean Genet’s first (it premiered in Paris in 1947) and is still frequently performed – just last month another version was playing at the Chocolate Factory. Cocteau’s interpretation of this tale of two maids’ fury at their mistress has a few twists: for one thing, it’s set in Los Angeles in a movie starlet’s home, and for another, the maids are portrayed by women (men are often given their roles, because Genet is supposed to have said once that he wanted it so).

Not much is made of the shift to LA from France, but the actresses are a main reason to see this production: Kate Holland is radiant as Claire, and Amanda Jones, whose look evokes a red-haired Mary Pickford, is powerful as Claire’s older sister Solange. Though the play is ostensibly about the maids’ resentment at their situation and of their privileged mistress, the starlet herself (Natalie Ballesteros) only appears briefly, and is essentially just an excuse to draw out the maids’ frustration. The show actually begins with Claire pretending to be the starlet in a dark play-within-a-play that, we find out a little later, is a kind of “ceremony” that the sisters perform every day as they try to muster the courage to kill their mistress. This misleading opening, while initially confusing, is one of the best parts of the play, and both foreshadows later events and influences how you understand the story.

2005_04_artsthemaids.jpgUnfortunately, that story is pretty thin, and the layers of character study and examination of class and labor relations put on top of it don’t fully compensate. This version in particular becomes rather nebulous, especially in the last third when Solange descends into madness and the whole thing loses direction with her. Jones delivers her material beautifully, but it all drags on for too long. The lighting (by Richard Dunham) which is otherwise coolly luminous, gets all patchy during this part, a choice that might be appropriate for what’s happening onstage but which left Gothamist feeling a tad disoriented. A sequence that should be suspenseful and haunting ends up being so melodramatic and longwinded that you start to lose sight of both the literal plight the maids are in, and the point Genet wants to make about it. Similarly, the ending, which is intended as somewhat of a surprise, fails to be very interesting because it takes forever to materialize. As a whole the show would have benefited from a more compact, tightly directed presentation, but the talented actresses do their utmost to communicate the effects of their oppressive occupation on their psyches. Their energetic performances often succeed despite the shortcomings of this revival.

See them, and see if you agree with this review, at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre [330 Bowery (at Bond)] starting this week and running through June 5.