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The Maids

A Dangerous Game of Dress-Up at Exit Stage Left

Early twentieth century playwright Jean Genet was a devilish provocateur whose works belong to the realm of high concept tragedy but encompass all the vulgar fodder of the low-brow, including tawdry tales of prostitutes, thieves, homosexuals, and other social "deviants". Genet's play The Maids is one of the playwright's most sophisticated commentaries on the otherness he was so preoccupied with portraying in his work. The Maids, which is now enjoying a run at Exit Stage Left under the capable production of the Cutting Ball Theater, one of San Francisco's most daring, and literate, troupe of dramaturgists around. The script -- in a fluid, poetic translation by Martin Crimp -- is putty in director Adriana Baer's hands, and bodes a creepy portrayal of lower-class servitude, sadomasochism, and murder.

The illusory, lyrically dense world of Genet's text is conveyed with obsessive detail by Cutting Ball Theater. The play was based on a famous 1930s crime in Paris, in which two servants conspired to murder their mistress. Genet offers his standard acerbic commentary on the crime, but transforms the act into an incendiary ritual with touches of dark eroticism.

Linnea Wilson plays the young, fallow maid Claire, whose role gradually shifts as the play unfolds and we learn that her innocence is a veneer that hides a perpetual resentment for her station and a volatile temperament that threatens to blow over throughout the course of the drama. Jennifer Stuckert's portrayal as Solange, the older of the two maids, is more muted but infinitely more complex. Stuckert aptly portrays Solange's ambivalence. While Claire's motives are simple to gauge and understand, Solange experiences extremes in emotion -- ranging from self-loathing to resignation to pure vitriol for her mistress.

Sigrid Sutter plays "Madame", in a portrayal that's tautly acted but minimal. In the course of the play, the maids take turns acting out the part of "Madame", in a twisted game that allows each to take turns abusing each other. The game is revelatory of the maids' hatred of Madame, but also of their own masochistic inclinations, which are a result of the self-hatred they experience as pawns in an oppressive social hierarchy.

The game of dress-up is also not without purposeful ambiguity. Under Baer's hand, audiences are treated to a bizarre spectacle that leads to a number of questions about who's playing which role and when. Eerily enough, even the "Madame" feels like she's playing a role although she isn't even in on the game.

Crimp's translation offers Genet's revised ending, which should be a treat for Genet fans who aren't familiar with the alternate twist. Baer's impeccable direction, complemented by Eric Flatmo's sparse black box set, keeps the play suspenseful and claustrophobic in its intensity -- and true to form in its chilling, deft exploration of social structures and power plays.

The Maids
at Exit Stage Left
Runs through February 25th
Tickets: $25 regular, $20 students & seniors