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“The Maids” Inhabit the Moth

April 24, 2010

Once in a while, the theatre muses conspire to stage simultaneous productions based on the same moment in history. It’s happening now with “My Sister in This House” at Deaf West in NoHo and The Help’s staging of “The Maids” at The Moth Theatre in Hollywood. 

The two shows, while drawing on savage circumstances in 1930’s France, are not at all identical. First, the facts: sisters Christine and Lea Papin lived an abused life in an upper class home in Le Mans, France where they were employed as maids/servants. The family, at its most kindly, ostracized them. The day came when it had been one day too long and the sisters killed Madame and her daughter. Brutally.

The Deaf West production, by playwright Wendy Kesselman and directed by Michael Unger, follows the story fairly accurately, based at least on testimony and interviews, while imagining the relationship, rumored to be incestuous, between the sisters.

Cheryl Nichols recounts that French playwright, Jean Genet, wrote “The Maids” in 1947 while in prison, a place he knew well. It seemed he was either in prison or living as a ward of the court in some upper class home, from which he would occasionally steal money and subsequently room, once again, in jail. He witnessed isolation first hand, and fostered a deep understanding of many sources of resentment.

In his play, “The Maids,” Genet identifies the sisters as Claire and Solange (based on Christine and Lea, respectively). His original 3-hour production was whittled to a pointed hour and ten minutes, in which Claire and Solange role play, trading off as Madame and servant, and creating sadomasochistic scenarios. No spoiler alert here – I won’t share the culmination of their game.

The idea to perform “The Maids” came to Cheryl Nichols, company member of The Help Theatre, a few years ago. She passed the script on to her friend, Lara Phillips, who let it sit for a while. Nichols says the day came when stuff in their personal lives brought them to a place where they needed to do the show. “We were about ready to explode.”

Phillips remembers getting to that point. “Besides, I was on a James Ellroy bender, reading the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy.” She was ready.

“Plus,” adds Nichols, “this is a perfect time for this play. People are feeling beat, beat, beat down. We can all relate to these sisters.”

Cassidy Freeman (Smallville) plays Madame. “I think people are looking for ways to escape without dumping that escape onto a credit card.”

“What I love about this play, more than the story,” says Nichols, “is its poetry. Genet has a way of distilling a paragraph of exposition into a concise thought, like My spurt of saliva is my spray of diamonds.” Phillips adds another: I wanted to make up for the poverty of my grief by the splendor of my crime. “We all know what it’s like to feel the unfairness of life,” notes Phillips. She waves a hand as if to include everyone. “We all know what it feels like to be part of a group where someone wants out.”

That temptation to flee often is born of resentment: resentment of our position, or resentment that someone else is a little more elevated than we are. “Genet,” says Nichols, “witnessed both sides, rich and poor, and was able to see the common thread. He rose above the resentment, but was able to express it so well in his characters.”

Nichols, Phillips, and Freeman, when asked, found it difficult to come quickly with a tag line. “It’s so complex.” “It’s about… everything.” Nichols resorted to reading the back of the published manuscript which, trust me, didn’t help. “Maybe,” Nichols said with a sense of exasperation, “this play is about three girls, one hour, and ten bucks.”

How poetic.

Matthew Lillard directs “The Maid” at The Moth Theatre, 4359 Melrose, Los Angeles. April 29 – May 16; by donation, April 23, 24, 25. (Photos, in descending order: Cheryl Nichols, Lara Phillips, Cassidy Freeman, courtesy of actors.)

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