Kevin V. Smith and J.J. Brennan
in The Maids X 2
Photo © Elizabeth Bick
Kevin V. Smith and J.J. Brennan
in The Maids X 2
Photo © Elizabeth Bick
Scholars have long debated how Jean Genet intended his one-act play The Maids to be performed. The author said that he originally conceived it with two young men as the female characters, but most theater companies have cast women in the roles. Now, Lane Savadove, artistic director of the recently formed EgoPo/Cocteau company, allows us to make our own decision as to which approach works better by presenting a side-by-side comparison in The Maids x 2. As it turns out, there's no contest; the version with women is somewhat engaging, but the other is one of the best shows of the year.

In the first version, sisters and maidservants Claire (Alejandra Cejudo) and Solange (Leah Loftin) enter their boss's bedroom, which is decorated with bouquets of flowers, crushed velvet furniture, a canopy bed, and a grand armoire. After tidying up for a few minutes, they begin to fantasize that they are in charge and take turns ordering each other around with dominatrix-like enthusiasm. When they finish amusing themselves in this manner, they reveal a plan to escape to Devil's Island with an elaborate plot: They will kill their employer, "Madame" (Taylor Wilcox), while "Monsieur" -- whom they framed -- is in prison. But events do not transpire exactly as planned.

Though there are fine performances by the actresses, this interpretation fails to stress the subject of class envy that is at the play's core. The servants don't sound any less educated or more vulgar than their employer; they even have good posture! It's hard to imagine these two women as miserable, poor, and resentful when we only see them in neat uniforms surrounded by luxury. While all three of the cast members get down and dirty in the more shocking sections of the text, the overall production itself is almost tasteful -- and tasteful Genet is not Genet at all.

There is a 50-minute intermission between shows, during which the proscenium set-up is turned into a bare-bones theater in the round. At this point, a Cajun dinner is served downstairs, presumably because EgoPro was formerly based in New Orleans. The second verson of The Maids takes place in a prison cell, similar to the one in which Genet wrote the play. (He was jailed several times for theft.) This time, Clare (J.J. Brennan) and Solange (Kevin V. Smith) are men -- sometimes in makeup but not in full drag -- who imagine themselves to be wealthy mademoiselles. They see their soiled underwear as perfumed flowers, a rusty toilet as a religious altar, and a scummy sink as a balcony. "Madame" (Nick Lopez) is a butch, bearded prison guard who sneaks into the cell, steals their makeup, forces them to pamper him, and generally bullies them around. Though all of this, Smith, Brennan, and Lopez give hilarious, moving, and brave performances.

Even if this variation doesn't follow the script to the letter, it's much truer to the spirit of Genet. The depiction of the female maidservants as male prisoners prompts the audience to consider the use of fantasy to escape oppressive authority. One can picture Genet languishing in France's notoriously horrible prisons, thinking about the privileged class that he both envied and was disgusted by but probably never imagining that, one day, those people would consider him a great writer.