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THEATER REVIEW : East West 'Maids' a Clinical, Solid Outing

March 04, 1994|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Skip the prelude," the servant elegantly commands. "Start the insults."

*

Welcome to "The Maids," Jean Genet's 1947 slap-in-the-face masterpiece. A seminal classic of French existentialism, the challenging text can still shock and insult polite society, as demonstrated in an impressive revival at East West Players. However, Genet's politically incorrect domestics with their sadomasochistic games can also resist empathy and arouse ennui, depending on how they're directed.

Director Alberto Isaac has chosen to faithfully strive for Genet's goal of a highly theatrical ceremony. When Madame is away, the maids play secret games in her bedroom, taking turns being master or slave. Sometimes the declamatory style resembles a Racine tragedy; at others, a Kabuki pantomime. But a difficult, delicate balance between ritual and realism must be maintained. If the maid's murderous schemes aren't believable, then tension dissolves into tedium. Isaac's restraint is admirable but somewhat bloodless. The drama flows from the intellect, not the heart.

And here style is character. But Emily Kuroda and Jeanne Sakata are superbly disciplined performers whose every gesture conveys a lifetime of abuse and self-denial. They become quintessential servants, the invisible messengers barely noticed in the background of countless movies. When Madame is present, their downcast eyes and whispered answers are devoid of emotion. But when Madame is away, their voices rage and their gestures turn epic. However, even when alone they resemble cadavers on display, hollow, drained by servitude.

Patricia Ayame Thomson's Madame is appropriately opposite in performance style. Her interpretation is burlesque, resembling a self-absorbed queen oblivious to her domestics. It's a more entertaining approach, but precarious in the context of this formal production. Rather than stepping from another class, this Madame sometimes seems like a fugitive from another play.

The stage is bordered by footlights, like a Boulevard comedy (and lit exquisitely by Rae Creevey), while the bedroom is impeccably detailed in funereal black-and-white tones by designer Francois Chau.

There is no hint of social protest, no easy outrage over Asian Americans working at minimum wage for a selfish exploiter. Rich or poor, these women would remain obsessed with dangerous games. Missing is Genet's religious fervor. It's a cold dance of death.

And yet, lured by Genet's vision, we can't take our eyes off this hypnotic autopsy.

* "The Maids," East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 3. $20. (213) 660-0366. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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