$28. Through May 22. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. Jobsite Theater, 1010 N. Macinnes Pl., Tampa. 813-229-STAR. jobsitetheater.org.
Don’t be misled by the sexy photos of Jobsite’s new show: Unlike other productions of Jean Genet’s The Maids, director David Jenkins went another way with this tantalizing French drama. CL’s own preview photos of the show — chosen by yours truly — may have hinted at lesbian(ish) moments, and if that’s why you bought the ticket, this show will disappoint. Certainly audiences do get some of that in the show’s first moments, when the two sisters — the darkly seductive Solange (Georgia Mallory Guy) and the comely Claire (Katrina Stevenson) — come close to incest/BDSM/we’re not quite sure what, but, despite those hot exchanges, that’s not what this production’s about.
Those familiar with Jobsite’s work won’t feel betrayed that Jenkins chose not to pander to the lowest common denominator, because in all probability, regular audiences expect Jenkins to elevate the playing field. Consider his director’s notes in the program:
“I have seen two productions of The Maids,” he writes. “One went far to make it hyper-sexual, essentially assaulting the audience ... with a BDSM show. The other reveled in its outright weirdness, reaching as far as it could for the absurd. I feel like both approaches leave too much on the table.”
Fair enough. Look, I had moments at the Sunday matinée when I wasn’t sure I had the energy to process everything coming at me from the three delicious actresses onstage, because this is not an easy show. Sometimes French plays feel dreadfully weighty and I’ll think, just for a moment, that I would give my right foot for a good Neil Simon comedy, or anything not so pregnant with nuance and meaning. Because make no mistake: The Maids, like onions and ogres, has layers. Again, I reference the director’s notes: “Every character plays a role of a character who plays a role.”
Does your head hurt yet? I’ll admit, this was the point where I briefly thought, “I should have had Leib do this.”
But know this: I quickly became invested in the show. Guy seduced me with her expressions and her character’s almost naive insanity. In Solange’s case, audiences aren’t sure until the end how much is play and how much is real, and, ultimately, Guy convinces you that in Solange’s mind, no such boundary exists. Stevenson’s portrayal of Claire, Solange’s younger sister, shows audiences her crazy in a different way, but matches Guy’s energy and scope so well you realize you’re looking not at one sane, placating sister and one bastshit crazy sister; rather, each actress has unpacked her role to craft separate but equal brands of insanity. Roxanne Fay, who has comparatively little stage time, serves as a charming device to gather up the threads from the sisters’ dialogue and knit them into something we can understand. Genet could have written the play without an onstage appearance from Madame, but by including her onstage, audiences glimpse some of the cruel and demented actions that feed the sisters’ madness. This not only makes the sisters' actions more believable, it helps us understand the shape of their unbalanced reality. Fay assumes her role brilliantly, donning an elegantly insane persona who, in her own nuttiness, compels the already-unstable women toward the play’s drastic ending.
What that ending is, I won’t say. I will say that as my companion and I left the theater, I didn’t know how I felt about The Maids. I didn’t like what I saw, but not because of poor production values (au contraire: Brian Smallheer gave us a luscious set and Katrina Stevenson matched it with luxurious costumes) or shoddy acting (as I’ve written, the actresses excelled). No, I didn’t like the story. I didn’t like what I had seen.
Nevertheless, as we strolled to the car, I found myself in a lively discussion about the women and how they dealt with their lots in life, and why they acted as they did. I struggled to understand their end choices. That led to other discussions, which led to more, which, a day later, led to still others. And today my brain wouldn’t release the way I felt when I walked out of the Shimberg. It’s not, I’ve realized, that I didn’t like the story; it’s that I didn’t like the possibilities in human nature to which it alluded.
The Maids is not a play for the passive. It is 90 unrelenting minutes of exhausting narrative; you cannot sit and sip your $12 Bombay and let your mind wander. An engaged audience will work as hard as the actors to appreciate the breadth of what Jobsite has given us. If you want a play with hyper-sexualized characters who never move out of the physical dimension, do not go see this show. It’s not that kind of sexy. However, If you want a play to challenge you, to engage you, to release you at its end and leave you limp and tired and still unable to stop thinking and discussing and masticating the bigger themes, this is it. This is a thinking man’s show.
And that offers a much headier kind of sexy.