Reviewed by Paul Birchall
A Noise Within
Through November 12
One of the great works of the Theater of the Absurd, Jean Genet’s towering 1947 opus of anger and desolation is a sort of blank canvas that a shrewd director and cast can fill with any meaning they choose. Taken in that sense, director Stephanie Shroyer’s current staging at A Noise Within is so narrow in scope that it must be considered a disappointment.
Certainly the production captures the highs and lows of Genet’s drama about a pair of disgruntled maids who role-play the torture and murder of their mistress, Madame. But the entire experience misses any of the edge and ferocity the work needs to be effective. It’s all very smooth and watchable, and it is a perfectly pleasant production, with a nice appealing cast rolling and romping about the stage. In a Genet play, however, I can’t really think of anything more damning. Watching the exceptionally likable and acrobatically adroit cast, I could not help but think how much better the play would be if it were cast with the drag queens from Rupaul’s Drag Race, or even with actors who were able to convey oppression and resentment.
While their mistress is away, two maids, Solange (Donnla Hughes) and Claire (Jaimi Paige) romp about in her bedroom, engaging in Dada-era cosplay, in which Claire dons Madame’s gorgeous gowns and swans about. Claire pretends to be Madame, while Solange insults and threatens to strangle her. Earlier Solange had spitefully betrayed their master to the police, and the two are delighted by their scheme to undermine their employers.
As the two maids continue their roleplay, they get a phone call that Monsieur is on his way home — and both maids know that he will waste no time in sussing out that one of them had turned him in. When Madame (Emily Kosloski) arrives after a day pleading for her husband in court, the two maids are forced to return to servitude as she arrogantly orders them around — but they plot to do her in with a poisonous cup of tea before Monsieur can come home.
A quick google of past productions of Genet’s The Maids lists a veritable cornucopia of earthy and edgy actions one might expect to see in a staging of this philosophically dark play: Characters might spray perfume on their naughty bits, curse a blue streak, vomit on stage, engage in Sapphic smooching, and much more. None of this appears in this almost bizarrely family friendly edition of Genet’s drama.
Genet’s tragedy is about more than class: It’s about a deconstruction of femininity and the playing of roles within roles. But there’s a noticeable lack of dimension, here. It’s just gals being mean about their boss.
Designer Frederica Nascimento crafts a suitably minimal set that consists of a large bed, wardrobe, and chair — and Angela Balogh Calin creates some lovely Dior-like gowns for Madame and the maids to doff and don. As the two maids, Hughes and Paige are serviceably bitter and angry — and Paige is particularly deft as she shifts from pretending to be Madame back to her long suffering, abused servile self. Kosloski is lusciously hateful as a glacially brittle, lovely and blithely arrogant Madame, oozing with unrecognized condescension for her underlings, whom she clearly believes are incapable of thinking for themselves.
Otherwise, the show features a flat, straightforwardly presentational style that is unintentionally disturbing. It’s about as unadorned a staging as it can be, and so routine, you almost can’t see the point of its existence. No revelations about the human experience are ever imposed on the audience’s perception. And that is a shame indeed, for this is a play whose intention is to unsettle — and not with blandness.
A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd, Pasadena; In rep, call theater for schedule; through November 12. (626) 356-3100 or www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.