Obie award-winning playwright José Rivera is an Oscar nominee for his adapted screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries. For this adaptation, he has set The Maids (which premiered in Paris in 1947) in Vieques Island in Puerto Rico in 1941. This was a politically tumultuous era with native factions resisting the U.S. presence there. Mr. Rivera’s script reflects this situation and locale and is filled with cultural references to sugar cane, bustellos and revolutionaries.
Inspired by a notorious 1933 French murder case, Genet’s play deals with two impoverished sisters, Solange and Claire. They work as maids for the imperious, wealthy Madame. While they are alone, each takes turns masquerading as Madame while wearing her clothes as they act out overwrought fantasies. Then they are subjected to Madame’s sadistic whims when she returns.
Many productions of the play have had three women playing the parts. Genet believed that the play worked best with men playing the roles as it brought out the subversive and campy elements of the work and some productions have followed this casting method.
Notable performers as the sisters in celebrated productions have included Glenda Jackson and Susannah York in the 1970’s and recently Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert.
Rivera has the maids played by two men and later by two women. At some points the quartet are mixed up or all four performers interact with each other simultaneously. It all becomes a dizzying spectacle as Madame (here La Doña) is played by a man and a fifth maid is also played by a man who delivers an expositional monologue.
With earthiness, bombast, and local color, Rivera’s dialogue and concept is faithful to Genet’s harshly comic view of conventional societal values. This fidelity includes the play’s repetitiveness that sometimes becomes wearying during its one hour and 45 minute length without an intermission.
Lean, very tall and with balletic physicality, the striking Charlie Munn forcefully opens the show as Ivette. Wearing a white slip and bra, Mr. Munn is a whirlwind of energy with his staccato vocal delivery and fluid movements.
As Monique, the shorter and burly Casey Robinson, dressed in a traditional black and white maid’s uniform, is cleaning as the audience enters. Eventually the personable Mr. Robinson who has a doleful countenance spars with Munn. Visually and emotionally, the two have an electric chemistry and contrast.
Later on they are replaced. The engagingly feisty and sensual Laura Butler Rivera is the next Monique. Equally alluring as the second Ivette is Folami Williams who is impishly dominant. Being of different races adds even more sparks to their intense relationship.
At the performance attended, bearded and stocky David Dempsey eerily performed the rotating role of the third Monique.
His beard decoratively knotted, his lips painted bright red, with a blonde wig that conceals a shaved head, and wearing a cream-colored cashmere sweater with a fur collar, the muscular Daniel Irizarry makes a great entrance as La Doña. His superb comic timing magnified by his thick Spanish accent, the frenetic Mr. Irizarry is hilarious but also conveys a sense of menace as he torments the sisters.
Irizarry also directed the production and it’s a blaze of theatricality. Besides the rich performances to which he has guided the actors, the presentation is dynamically enacted. Numerous brief dance sequences to popular songs occur and the quintet rhythmically gyrates. Compelling fight sequences are scattered throughout. There’s a frantic pillow fight resulting in a shower of feathers. It’s all a masterful display of swift physical staging that enhances the meaning of the play.
Some patrons sitting in the front row will be importuned to hold coffee cups, wear a wig that gets combed or get a lap dance. These intrusions don’t last long and add even more merriment, especially as the audience sits on two sides of the theater and can see each other across the playing area.
Lucrecia Briceno’s lighting design and Marcelo Añez’s sound design are in thrilling overdrive with strobes, blackouts, fire alarms, the sound of waves and throbbing song selections.
In the center of the runway stage is scenic designer’s Jorge Dieppa atmospheric set. Peeling plaster walls, shutters, old portraits and an elaborate bed all convey the authentic look of a 1940’s tropical plantation estate.
The audience enters the theater through a warren of dimly lit hallways that are hanging with lingerie, furs, and gowns, suggesting La Doña’s closets.
These fashionable garments are the excellent work of costume designer Meghan Healey. From the starchy maid’s uniforms, different styles of underwear, a red sequined dress and everything else, Ms. Healey has perfectly outfitted every character several times.
This premiere of this incarnation of The Maids inventively and vibrantly demonstrates the timeless resonance of Genet’s modern classic.
The Maids (through October 30, 2016)
INTAR Theatre, 500 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.intartheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission