Tacoma’s theater scene seems to spawn a creative undercurrent of alt-theater, and Toy Boat (after a couple of years’ hiatus) is its latest wave. Last weekend the company opened Jean Genet’s "The Maids" at King’s Books – a very intimate setting, and perfect for this endlessly twisting psychological suspense that ends in unexpected tragedy. But although the play’s only an hour long, and includes plenty of low-grade titillation (it’s all about sexual frustration) and fine acting from one of the leads, there’s something kind of heavy about it that extends beyond the verbosity of the 1947 translated script.
French literature can be tangled, and this is no exception. Inspired by a real-world double-murder of a Parisian mother and daughter by their two maids (sisters who were later discovered naked in bed together), the plot is deliciously twisted. As sisters Claire (Emily Rychlick, haughty yet sounding a bit too much like a 21st-century college student) and Solange (Deya Ozburn, completely committed and swaying between remorse and B&D scariness) play out their fantasies about their employer Madame, it’s clear they don’t just want to be her – they want to kill her. Throw in their sexual repression with tradesmen and each other (and Madame’s power) and you’ve got a heady mix that director Marilyn Bennett translates with silky vintage negligees, tarty maid costumes and a highly-charged lighting that puts Claire and Solange into their own fishbowl. The stacks of musty books and faded rugs just add to the depraved poshness of the situation, while seating the audience right around the stage deepens the thematic level to something more eternal: the power struggle of poor versus rich, of siblings, of servants and mistresses.
All that’s very clever, and Ozburn shines in raw honesty, taking Solange through fear to a crazy-eyed desperation. When Madame finally enters (a delightfully suave (though one-dimensional) Ricky German) the scene heats to boiling point. And German’s obviously loving his every garment change.
But the big difficulty with "The Maids" is that Genet needed an editor – badly. He’s got a fascinating backstory, to be sure: an abandoned childhood; increasing theft; rebellion and imprisonment; defiant homosexuality and, eventually, writings that got him noticed by intelligentsia like Sartre. And he does a great job of twisting some poignant themes. But the words go on and on, and not even the maids’ circular connivings can excuse them. Bennett’s trick is to fly through the sentences, but that just makes their complexity more obtuse, and leads to a sameness of feel.
By the climax, though, Ozburn and Rychlick are so convincing that you’re drawn into their mad despair, and even the cheesy Jacques Brel finale adds another layer of theatrics to this late-night drama.