If a real prisoner were forced to run in place for 15 minutes or blow cigarette smoke into another prisoner’s mouth, he could easily claim he was being exploited. So what’s the difference when an actor playing a prisoner is forced to do those very things? For director Lee Savadove, apparently, the difference is that enacting violence on his cast creates “Event Theater.” In his program note, he vaguely defines that term as theater that drills its way into our imaginations. That punishing verb certainly applies to “The Maids x 2,” a high-concept staging of Jean Genet’s “The Maids” that spares no sadistic effort to get our attention.
With this production, Savadove inaugurates his term as artistic director of the Egopo/Cocteau Repertory Ensemble, a new hybrid of the Cocteau Rep and Katrina-displaced New Orleans-based Ego Po Prods. Attempting to announce an era of thoughtful artistry, he stages Genet’s one-act play twice. When we first see the tale of two servants attempting to kill their mistress, the setting is a naturalistic boudoir and the thesps are women. But for act two, the players are men (as Genet intended) and the action has been moved to a dank prison cell.
This double dip is meant to illuminate the play’s complex look at identity, performance, and control. Genet explores these themes by having the maids pretend to be their mistress, wrapping themselves in their lady’s clothes and acting out the mental and sexual power they rarely possess. By the time the mistress herself arrives, it’s clear all three are spiritually deformed — they are maids and mistresses, but they are also prisoners of demeaning social roles.
It would be interesting to greet auds with two deft readings of this play, but Savadove misses the mark each time. Both productions are sloppy and overwrought, relying on violent shock tactics that tell us what we already know.
Namely, Savadove’s thinking ends with the notion that these characters have violent urges. He flogs his single approach with utter disregard for Genet’s subtler achievements.
All six actors, for example, incessantly scream their lines. It’s difficult to follow much of what they’re saying, since inflection and context are always traded for volume, volume, volume.
Maybe that’s why the actors’ movements are so literal: otherwise we’d never know what was happening. But that means we have to watch the cast blatantly pantomime lines like “I wiped his face,” which aggravates the sophomoric taint of their screeching.
When they’re not miming their words, Savadove has thesps bolt around the set. He seems terrified of stillness, though his hyperactive blocking only occasionally communicates a purpose. Mostly, the movement belies a lack of confidence.
If these chaotic pieces do make a point, it’s that Savadove is desperate for a reaction. Groping and punching give way to sexual assault and nudity, and you can almost hear the show begging us to be appalled.
Finally, the director gets so eager to top himself that he punishes actors Kevin V. Smith and J.J. Brennan with running-in-place and smoke swallowing. But watching these men endure actual — not fictionalized — exploitation offers scant insight into Jean Genet or “The Maids.” It just exposes a director who believes humiliation makes theater an event.