×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

New York Theater Review: ‘The Maids’ Starring Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert

With:
Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Elizabeth Debicki.

As showpieces go, they don’t get much showier than Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in the Sydney Theater Company production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” the theatrical centerpiece of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. Genet based this 1947 play on a notorious murder case in which two homicidal sisters killed their mistress and her daughter. The kind of roles, in other words, that actresses would kill to play. Blanchett and Huppert are demonstrably well equipped to play the parts — but not on the same stage. The mismatching of these super-thesps is quite baffling.

The fluid nature of Genet’s absurdist theatrical style opens the play to any number of interpretations, including the provocative notion that play-acting and murder are both legitimate ways of establishing one’s own identity. Set designer Alice Babidge acknowledges as much with a box set constructed of glass, with multiple mirrors and an overhead video screen. If life is a stage, then this is a stage where artifice comes to life.

Inventing an identity invariably means stealing from other people. This is the context in which Solange (Huppert) and Claire (Blanchett) are introduced to us. As personal maids to the mistress of the house, the sisters share a tiny room in the attic. But with their mistress out of the house they feel free to creep into her flower-bedecked bedroom and appropriate pieces of her identity.  By lying on her bed, trying on items from her vast wardrobe — color coordinated and gorgeously arrayed on a stage-length garment rack — and making free use of her makeup, they enact a highly ritualized scenario that ends, menacingly enough, with her murder.

Blanchett gives a dynamic performance as Claire, the melodramatic sister, who flies into a fit at the least provocation. Huppert plays Solange as the smarter, more subtle, more bitterly ironic observer. “The mistress is getting carried away,” she dryly notes of her sister’s exhibitionism. (Huppert took a similar but more nuanced approach to the role in Chabrol’s 1995 film “La Ceremonie,” winning a César for her work.)

Claire takes the game-playing to the next stage by viciously mimicking her mistress’s mannered airs and graces.  Blanchett is quite wonderful at play-acting Madam’s cruel and selfish ways with her servants, amusingly playful at first in ordering her cringing maid to lay out her gown and jewels. (“I’m more beautiful than the Virgin,” she croons to herself in that enormous mirror.) And when Madam eventually shows up (in the splendid person of the Australian thesp Elizabeth Debicki), we can appreciate the dead-eye accuracy of her mocking parody.

But Genet was dead serious (and insanely enraged) on the subject of the uneven class struggle between the overlords of society and those forced to become their slaves. So it’s inevitable that Claire’s egomaniacal ranting would become increasingly cruel and quite scary. Just as Genet’s vision darkens and his language becomes more insistently threatening.

Benedict Andrews’ helming is far less effective at conveying the parallel role-playing ritual between the two sisters. In Genet’s cynical worldview, all human relationships — whether political, sexual, marital or familial — are power struggles. That includes the relationship between Solange and Claire. Incestuously close one minute and killingly competitive the next, the sisters are engaged in their own perverse game of identity theft. In the macabre funhouse of their minds, they could be mirror images of one another.

Not in this production, however. Although Genet’s stylized drama is anything but realistic, there’s still the fair expectation that there should be similarities, psychological if not physical, between the two sisters in their fight for domination of their collective self. Here, both thesps remain isolated in their own acting techniques, their own sensibilities, even their own languages.  That’s no fair fight.

maids-review-blanchett-huppert

Popular on Variety

New York Theater Review: 'The Maids' Starring Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert

New York City Center; 2257 seats; $300 top. Opened Aug. 6, 2014. Reviewed Aug. 8. Running time: ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.

Production: A Lincoln Center Festival presentation of the Sydney Theater Company production of a play in one act by Jean Genet, in a translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Lipton from the French version by Julie Rose.

Creative: Directed by Benedict Andrews. Set, Alice Babidge; lighting, Nick Schlieper; sound, Luke Smiles; video, Sean Bacon; composer, Oren Ambarchi; dramaturg, Matthew Whittet; production stage manager, Georgia Gilbert.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Elizabeth Debicki.

More Legit

  • Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies' in the Works

    Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies' in the Works as a Movie From Heyday, BBC Films

    David Heyman’s Heyday Films, whose credits include “Gravity,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Marriage Story” and the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises, and BBC Films have secured the film rights to Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical “Follies.” “Follies” will be adapted for the screen and directed by Dominic Cooke, a four-time Olivier [...]

  • Tina Turner The Musical

    How 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical' Tells the Icon's Traumatic Story

    It wasn’t the response Tali Pelman had hoped to receive. The group creative managing director of Stage Entertainment had traveled to Küsnacht, Switzerland, with one goal in mind: Convince Tina Turner that her life could be the stuff of a successful stage musical. “We walked in the door,” Pelman remembers. “Tina was already there, and she greeted [...]

  • Ben McKenzie

    'Gotham' Star Ben McKenzie to Make Broadway Debut in 'Grand Horizons'

    “Gotham” star Ben McKenzie will make his Broadway debut in Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons.” He joins a cast that includes Oscar nominees Jane Alexander (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The Great White Hope”) and James Cromwell (“Babe,” “L.A. Confidential”). The show has a strictly limited 10-week run and begins previews on Dec. 23, 2019, before officially opening [...]

  • The Great Society review

    Listen: Brian Cox on 'Succession,' Shakespeare, and the Crisis We're In

    Brian Cox is having a pop-culture moment with “Succession,” the buzzy HBO series in which he stars. But he’s also an accomplished theater actor with plenty of experience doing Shakespeare — and it serves him well in both “Succession” and in his current Broadway show, “The Great Society.” Listen to this week’s podcast below: Cox [...]

  • Scooby Doo Ella Louise Allaire Martin

    Scooby-Doo Live Theater Tour Is Goofy Dane's Latest Adventure

    From its 1969 start as a Saturday morning kids mystery cartoon series “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” starring its titular, talking Great Dane and his four teenaged friends, has made adventure its staple. Once Hanna-Barbera’s successor, Warner Bros. Animation, took the leash, Scooby and company became a comic book, a board game, a series of video [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    'Tootsie' Ending Broadway Run in January

    “Tootsie,” the critically acclaimed musical adaptation of the 1982 classic film comedy, will play its final Broadway performance on Jan. 5, 2020. When it wraps up its run, the show will have logged 293 regular and 25 preview performances at the cavernous Marquis Theatre, where it sometimes labored to draw big crowds. Last week, “Tootsie” [...]

  • Laurel Griggs

    Laurel Griggs, Broadway and 'SNL' Actress, Dies at 13

    Laurel Griggs, who starred in Broadway’s “ONCE the Musical” as Ivanka, has died. She was 13. An obituary posted to Dignity Memorial indicates she died on Nov. 5, and Griggs’ grandfather wrote on Facebook that her death was due to a massive asthma attack. Griggs made her Broadway debut when she was six years old [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content