… oppression  …

Enter the weird world of Claire and Solange – the world of what oppression does to the human spirit.

The language is brilliant and stunningly expressed by two great actresses in this production, the psychological twists and freehand switches on role playing are the products of a stupendous dramatic imagination. But unlike the actual notorious murder that inspired the play, the Papin case, the maids, not the mistress, are the ultimate victims.  The author’s profound reversal of the expected ending raises this play from a shocking oddity of kinky love-hate relationships (which it is!) to the level of a true classic.  To have seen this great, passionate production is a life treasure.

In the Papin case, in France in 1933, two sisters, employed in the same household as maids, murdered their employer’s wife and daughter.  In Les Bonnes/The Maids, two maids who are sisters, Claire and Solange, play-act as the mistress whenever Madame, the mistress, is out, masquerade in her dresses, express their furious resentments and debasement, and plot her murder.

Only they don’t seem to have it in them.  They spend so much time analyzing every nuance of the words and actions of each other, and their relationship, and of all the other words, actions and relationships of that touch them – Madame, her lover Monsieur, and the milkman Mario, that Madame always comes home too soon, forcing them into a humiliating scramble to get Madame’s clothes back on the hangers and everything back in order.

They are not, however, totally inept.  In an intimation of what they may be capable of, Claire has written a letter denouncing Monsieur – and the man’s in jail.  But in the course of the play, during their hectic afternoon of dressing up in Madame’s finery, analyzing their anguish, and hurling recriminations, a phone call comes, and they learn Monsieur has been released from prison, forcing a change in their plans, or speeding them up.  Madame arrives, self-involved, patronizing, self-dramatizing – she’s going to follow her lover to the ends of the earth, enraptured by the sense of her own generosity, she’s gives Claire and Solange her red dress that is a dominant feature of the evening, and her fur cape – and takes them back.  But she notices the phone dangling off the hook – questions are asked, mild suspicion aroused and, distracted, she rushes out of the house to meet her lover, not taking time to drink the tea Claire has prepared for her – Madame’s good luck.

Role boundaries are permeable.  Claire becomes Madame, dominating her older sister, Solange who also play-acts as the dominating Madame.  Sisters detest one another and are lovers.  Solange is the virulent hater while Claire has softer moments – but don’t count on it.

When Madame leaves to meet Monsieur, freed from prison, the sisters revert to their play-acting “game” but this time, through a leap of the author’s imagination, and the perverse logic of their role-playing, Oppression gathers in its victims.

This was a stunning production, physically centered around a tall noose-like contraption with a twisted bucket – suggesting buckets of water eternally carried, to which Solange and Claire are tethered, like mules to a grinding stone.  The set design, by Lloyd Huber and Di Girolamo, is as imaginative and emotionally signifying as any I’ve ever seen.

The play was presented in the original French with English titles above, and the acting by two French actresses, Helene Godec as Solange and Laura Lassy Towsend as Claire was surpassing.  The heat of emotions and tightly entwined dialog of these two sisters, who know each other too well, was breath-taking.  Cloe Xhauflaire as Madame was on a par, though her role is less demanding than the astonishing intensity of the interplay between Solange and Claire.

I saw this production of a classic play of huge intellectual and artistic importance at the very end of its run.  The best I can say by way of apologies that it’s not there for you now is:  keep an eye on L’Atelier Theatre Productions and La MaMa.

Les Bonnes/The Maids played at La MaMa theater in Manhattan’s lower East side from March 2-19.  For more information about the production and its creative team, and some telling photos, click here.