Monday, August 8, 2016

The Maids—Shaking the Tree Theatre—SE Portland

“…A Little Madness”

Public Citizen Theatre presents this Portland premiere of Jean Genet’s twisted classic tale, translated by Martin Crimp and directed by Aaron Filyaw (& co-producer).  It is playing at 823 SE Grant St. through August 21st.  For more information go to their site at

Where does one draw the line between fantasy and reality (or is there really a defined line)?  Everyone has dreams, fantasies and moments of “madness.”  Zorba, the Greek, espoused that everyone needs a little “madness” at some point in their lives.  This strange tale has shades of Albee’s, …Virginia Woolf, when moments of the imaginary world they have created, crash into the real world and so it must be eliminated; or, Marat/Sade or King of Hearts, when the insane re-create the world of the sane; or Sunset Boulevard, when the lines become blurred with tragic results; and Gosford Park and Upstairs/Downstairs as caste systems are examined and, perhaps, never the twain shall meet.  This play contains bits of all these elements.

It seems that when the Cat/Mistress’s (Alexandria Casteele) away the Mice/Maids, Solange (Amanda Mehl, also co-producer) and her sister, Claire (Ahan Dunn-Wilder), do indeed play.  Claire likes to dress up as the Mistress, using her clothes and jewels, as well as taking on her personality, and delights in mistreating her sister as an underling, verbally and physically abusing her as, perhaps, the real mistress does to both of them.  It is a sado-masochistic relationship but played as a dark comedy.  But their game-playing turns even darker as they plan on poisoning their Mistress and usurping her lifestyle.

When she arrives home again, she beings to notice little changes in the atmosphere, as well as the behavior of her servants.  The jig might be up but a call from a former lover, thought to be in jail, is coming home, so she goes to meet him.  But the sisters seem so set in their plan that the playacting might drive them off the deep end.  To see how it all ends, you must, of course, see the play.  But know that such dangerous games can have dangerous consequences.

The power in the play is in witnessing the performances, so I have deliberately given you only a thumb-nail sketch.  But, I would note that Genet is something of a prophet, too, as the computer age has unleashed a series of video games, some very realistic, in which one needs to enact roles, to win.  Some people are so ultra-obsessed with the avatar counterparts that they become more real and desired than the actual world they live in.  Not a comforting thought for “that way lies madness.”

Filyaw has kept the story moving at a brisk pace with nary time for a breath.  And he has a first-rate cast, which is the crowning glory of this production!  Casteele plays the condescending, prissy little bitch of a Mistress to a tee.  One could well see why she might be a deserving candidate for Sweeney Todd’s barber chair.  Mehl, as the calculating Solange, keeps you guessing as to her motives and even her next moves or even as to how she really feels about her sister, Claire.  She is especially good in her monologue at end, as she sinks deeper into her enigmatic world.  And, Dunn-Wilder is amazing as the role-playing Claire who has definitely crossed the imaginary line, between what is real and what is not, by the end.  I have touted her before in past PAC productions and she proves she is not just a flash-in-the-pan but someone has true acting chops who I look forward to seeing again onstage.

One note, though, the theatre is so cavernous, lines have a tendency to get lost at times when they are speaking too fast and/or not enunciating.  Not their fault, it the place, but just something to be aware of.  Also I was going to make a negative note about outside noises (sound designer, Saul Martinez) that creep in, until I realized that they were part of the show (imaginary invading the real?).  Very clever.  And the set (Tyler Buswell) and lighting (Becca Priddy), although simple, are quite effective, too.

I recommend this show, although because of the adult subject matter, may not be for everyone.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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