The Not-So-Merry Maids
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The Not-So-Merry Maids

An ambitious season opener, artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Brendan Healy barely misses a spot in this queer theatre classic.

If good help is hard to find, a good mistress is even worse. Diane D'Aquila (Solange) and Ron Kennell (Claire) in The Maids. Photo by Jeremy Mimnaugh.

The Maids
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
(12 Alexander Street)
September 17 to October 9, Tuesdays to Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays 2:30

Expectations are tricky when it comes to season openers, and in the case of the The Maids at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, expectations were high.

Not only is it the follow-up to artistic director Brendan Healy’s Dora Award–winning smash Blasted last year, and not only does it star two ex-Stratford names like Ron Kennell and Diane D’Aquila, but even the dusty pink curtain, glass chandeliers, and classical music that greeted audience members before the play began piqued our curiosity. Then the curtains opened, revealing a half-naked Kennell with rouged cheeks, flowing curly locks done up like a countess, and wearing stockings of a lady of the night. From then on, we knew to throw all of our expectations out the window.

If there is one absolute truth about Buddies in Bad Times, it’s that it is certainly not afraid of a challenge. With The Maids by Jean Genet and translated by Martin Crimp, Healy tackles an important piece of the queer theatre canon as his follow up to Blasted—a tough script to begin with, before adding his own interpretations as director.

The Maids is inspired by the 1933 murder of the wealthy Madame Lancelin and her daughter by their two maids, who claimed they were acting in self-defense against an abusive employer, making the servants heroes to the working class and monsters to the bourgeoisie. Loosely inspired, we should say. Because instead of acting out the story scene for scene, fact for fact, the script examines what we assume to be a normal evening at the house before the crime. The two maids, sisters Solange (D’Aquila) and Claire (Kennell), begin with their daily reenactment of their mistress-idal fantasy, Claire assuming the role of the dramatic Madame (and it’s at this point that the curtains open). While their mistress is away, Solange and Claire bemoan their stature, curse Madame for her cruelty, and begin plotting their revenge in seriousness when Madame comes home, heartbroken over the arrest of her lover.

Genet, a thief before he turned to writing, never takes a clear side and blurs the lines between victim and oppressor. In appearance, Madame (Maria Ricossa) is a world apart from her two employees: she with elaborate makeup and hair, high heels, a tiny waist, and a silky green suit that matches the sheen of her massive rose-coloured bedroom, while Solange and Claire are dressed in simple black uniforms, stringy black hair pulled back into buns, Solange with an unappealing limp and Claire with masculine features. But in character, the differences are far more hazy. None of them are particularly likeable, though there are moments that paint the two sibling servants as equally manipulative and tyrannical as Madame, if not more, and just as caught up in their own sad story.

Just as Genet blends the morals of the characters, Healy blurs gender by casting Kennell as the younger, more emotionally fragile Claire, and D’Aquila as the more domineering elder sister, Solange. The choice is apparently because of the differing opinions over whether Genet always intended for his female characters to be played by young boys. Claire is quintessentially feminine while Solange plays a more masculine brute, their sexual ambiguity enhanced by their shapeless uniform and matching buzz cuts. It’s strange, off-putting, and uncomfortable, mostly because D’Aquila and Kennell are so convincing in their performances (we’re expecting their names to be on the Dora docket next year). And because they’re two accomplished actors capable of carrying out Healy’s vision, it works.

This isn’t an easy play to watch—scenes between Solange and Claire are heavy and dense, both in subject and language, and sometimes lose pace and our focus—but just like this iconic company, audiences must be ready for the challenge. But with Genet’s script, Crimp’s translation, and Healy’s vision, the performances by D’Aquila, Kennell, Ricossa, and the work of production designer Julie Fox, lighting designer Kimberly Purtell, and sound designer Richard Feren, The Maids presents a challenge worth facing.