In this gilded age of ours, even a creepy underground classic can be given a posh makeover.
"The Maids," an early play by Jean Genet, that mid-20th century bad boy of French letters, normally slinks under the radar of our commercialized theater, preferring pocket venues of dingy ambience or university theaters with brooding undergraduates eager to become disciples of yesterday's iconoclasts.
Ritzy, cavernous, balletomane-y New York City Center isn't a likely venue for this play about two domestics who enact ritual fantasies of murdering their employer by taking turns impersonating her. But this masquerade of sibling servants has been relaunched with a pair of irresistibly glamorous international film stars who regularly find room in their calendars for adventurous theater, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert.
Their presence is enough to make this super-deluxe Sydney Theatre Company production the most sought-after ticket of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival.
What Genet, a novelist and playwright whose literary apprenticeship was spent as a hustler and thief, would have made of all these New York swells paying $375 for a decent seat is anyone's guess. (I'd like to think he'd relish having picked the pockets of these fat cats.)
But it's hard to imagine he wouldn't be entranced by Blanchett's extravagant fierceness. Genet wanted his play to be performed by men, but the drag act this Australian wonder pulls off — cinematic royalty impersonating a maid impersonating her imperious Mistress — is a dazzling hall of mirrors that no mere male mortal in lipstick could match.
Swinging between extremes of arrogance and abjection, Blanchett's Claire barks orders one minute, plunges her head down a toilet bowl the next. Borrowing one of Mistress' gowns, she struts around like a sadistic aristocrat, ready to pounce on the slightest housekeeping infraction. Were it not for the way her face is streaked with makeup like a humiliated clown, no one would suspect that she wasn't queen of this palace.
That role, however, is assumed by the sensational Elizabeth Debicki (a standout in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby"), who practically steals every scene she's in. This Mistress is a Paris Hilton-styled daddy longlegs who's younger than her maids and never lets them forget it. Improperly intimate, she's just as inappropriately abusive — and her reversals are as dizzying as the sisters' games.
I'm of two minds about Benedict Andrews' staging, which doesn't provide a level playing field for the enigmatic, physically whimsical Huppert. She's fascinating to watch and as fearless as her fellow performers, but her halting command of English is too conspicuous to overlook or intellectually rationalize.
Genet's play may revel in its artificiality, in its belief that being is nothing but an interlude of play-acting covering over a gaping emptiness, but Huppert's mode of play-acting often seems at variance with the rest of this athletic Anglophone production.
It's hard to accept that Blanchett's Claire and Huppert's Solange are sisters. But the issue isn't simply one of surface naturalism. Something is culturally askew. The new translation by Andrews and Sydney Theatre Company artistic director (and Blanchett's husband) Andrew Upton gives the language a fizzy update, part "Real Housewives," part Noel Coward, but Huppert appears understandably to be taking her verbal cues from Genet's original French.
This isn't fatal to the production, but it prevents Andrews' vision from reaching maximum strength. (Huppert, an actress I would cross oceans to see, deserves to tour in a French-language revival, one that would exploit her gift for eerie silence.)
But just as she has done for "Hedda Gabler," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Uncle Vanya," Blanchett puts her galloping radiance at the service of "The Maids," a lesser world classic but one that encourages the best of her bravado. This performance confirms her position as the most boldly captivating actress of her generation and certainly the one who thrives best in realms outside ordinary realism.
Andrews' direction splatters the subtext in garish colors. There's a lot of bumping and grinding between these unnaturally close sisters, whose story was inspired by an actual criminal case. The aggression is revved up and stylized. Merciless close-ups of the actresses, shot with a hand-held camera and thrown up on a giant screen, implicate us in the characters' degradation and descent into madness.
Designer Alice Babidge creates a sickening opulence for the action, which takes place in Mistress' private quarters, a master bedroom and dressing area on a scale that would seem sumptuous even by the standards of Beverly Hills mansions. A bed, a vanity table and a clothing rack stretching the length of a city block make up the main room. Behind this is a luxurious bathroom, only partly visible.
Claire and Solange defile the place only to restore it before Mistress returns. Class resentment sparks their revolutionary campaign; their impoverished helplessness keeps them from going all the way — but for how long?
This Sydney Theatre Company production wants to make connections between the play and the economic disparities wrought by unchecked 21st century global capitalism. But this is tricky because this expensive, star-driven offering is itself symptomatic of what is being critiqued.
The feeling at Friday's opening-night performance at New York City Center was that of a cultural event that was simultaneously a consumer affair for the 1%, a good many of whom would rather be viewing a fashion show than sitting through the ritual antics of Genet's odd and somewhat patchy play.
"The Maids," even with the distortions, resonated despite it all. If the test of a great drama is its multiplicity in performance, then this work should be around for many more adventures and misadventures. Few, however, will be able to rival the spectacular flamboyance of Blanchett at her most majestically unhinged.