REVIEW: The mirror has two maids in Jean Genet's play

The mirror has two maids
By Walter Ang
August 17, 2013
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Topper Fabregas (in dress, left) and Anton Juan (right).
Photo by Frances Makil Ignacio
The title alone of French playwright Jean Genet's "The Maids" prompts a consideration of this particular staging's venue location: in a building that straddles, a sort of unofficial boundary, the red light district and a high-end private residential area.

Power, economics, status, sex and their boundaries, the audience soon finds out, are explored in this tale of two sisters who work in the titular occupation for the unnamed Madame.

Staged by Musicartes with support from Theater Actors Guild, this English production (translated by Bernard Frechtman) is directed by Anton Juan.

Male actors are cast as the sisters. Juan is Solange and Topper Fabregas is Claire. In a fun bit of stunt casting, different actors, both male and female, portray Madame in each show.

The male casting for the two leads is as what the playwright has always intended it to be. The most recent professional staging with an all-male cast was by Philippine Educational Theater Association in 2001 at resto-bar Republic of Malate, using Rody Vera's Tagalog translation with direction by Indian director Rustom Bharucha. In the cast were Phil Noble (Clara/Claire), Melvin Lee (Soledad/Solange) and Bart Guingona (Madame).

Juan had performed as Claire in the 60s in a staged reading in Café Los Indios Bravos (also in Malate) with Joey Gosiengfiao (Solange) and Behn Cervantes (Madame). He has directed the play in 1970 with Ernie Abella (Solange), Chiqui Xerex Burgos (Claire) and Noel Macrae (Madame).

This time around, Juan is a solid, steady, deliberate, dangerous Solange. Fabregas plays Claire with a desperate, crazed delivery that becomes sharply contrasted when she transforms into the stolid servant in front of Madame.

The boundaries of gender expression (body characteristics, behavior, clothing) are explored. Both actors wear men's clothing and women's garments designed by John Herrera and Mitoy Santa Ana, slipping in and out of "masculine" and "feminine" line deliveries.

Juan's soft, thick voice foils well with Fabregas' inspired, dexterous turn as a twitchy, screechy woman on the verge of a breakdown or breakthrough or both.

Jenny Jamora played Madame as a campy cartoon character caricature, blending well into the staging's sinister strangeness-an atmosphere complemented with Joseph Mathieu's lighting design and Juan's sound design.

Humor emerges throughout their maneuverings and all three actors' performances are fun to watch. Their performances graze the boundaries of camp, melodrama and ham but never stepping overboard-a tight and delicate calibration that creates a heady and exciting energy, driving the action headlong into its inexorable tragic conclusion.

As the play unfolds, the audience finds out that whenever Madame is away, the sisters imitate her and perform dramatized (or real?) versions of themselves, acting out variations of a scene where they attempt to kill their employer.

At this revelation, the deliberate slyness of the venue becomes apparent. Staged in-the-round at Musicartes' rehearsal studio, one wall's floor-to-ceiling mirror is left uncovered: a single pane separates illusion from delusion.

The mirror also doubles the space, an expansion of the siblings' imaginations/machinations; but it also frames the space, a mute wall constricting their existence. Precisely because it is only an illusion of expanded space, it is forever a reminder of how restricted their lives actually are.

Despite and because of their flights of fancy, they both are acutely aware of exactly where they are. "Limits, boundaries … frontiers are not convention but law," says Solange.

Repeating violence
But they oh so badly want to break out. Or do they? The mirror reminds audiences of the siblings' acts of repetitive copying. They rehearse the belabored murder attempt every chance they get, apparently. Always a simulation, never the actualization.

Meanwhile, they seem to be breaking each other: incestuous sadomasochism surfaces whenever they playact/interact (there is screaming, spitting, insulting, slapping, whipping). With a dominatrix's arsenal of latex and rubber gloves, flowers and fur, their games mirror the prolonged masturbation of their lives without the benefit of a climax.

Juan dominates Fabregas' smooth submissive neck alternately with kisses and strangling (erotic asphyxiation?). Without a television or computer monitor's glass pane to separate audiences from these intimate acts of brutality and brutal acts of intimacy, the effect is startling, suspenseful, frightening, visceral. (Depending on your location in the seating areas, the mirror doubles these efforts, both distancing and amplifying the suffocations.)

And as it turns out, their "rehearsals" are not in a recursive circle; the repetitions build up and spiral out (and down). Playacting shifts to power play as Claire has apparently written incriminating letters to the police, causing Madame's husband to be arrested.

When he is freed on bail, the balance of power, the sisters realize, swings only one way--despite their attempts at inversion/perversion of roles.

The oppressed are always trapped. The dominant always get off free. Consider that this production comes at the heels of the recently enacted Senator Jinggoy Estrada-authored Republic Act 10361, also known as Batas Kasambahay (Domestic Workers Act), vis-à-vis the current headlines of Janet Napoles' daughter's extravagant lifestyle amidst unexplained (as of yet) wealth.

Now who says theater doesn't mirror the roles we play/act/perform in real life?

"I'm sick of seeing my image thrown back at me by a mirror," wails Claire. Defeated, they retreat to their familiar playacting and enact one last defiant performance: Solange's ultimate act of sadism as she stands complicit to Claire's ultimate act of masochism.

"The Maids" runs until Aug. 18 at Mirror Studio Theatre, 5th flr, SJG Centre Building, 8463 Kalayaan Ave., Makati City. Actors portraying Madame: Aug 17 Saturday 8pm Gwyn Guanzon, Aug 18 Sunday 3pm Liza Diño and 8pm Joel Saracho. Contact 09175343223 or 8958098.

Also published online:

While preparing this review, I tried to find out if there had been previous stagings of the play in Manila with male actors. Thanks to the communications function of Facebook, the list started with one professional production and grew and grew. Most of the past stagings had been in campuses, so I decided to split it off into a sidebar. Then the sidebar grew and grew until the editors didn't have space for it anymore. The list is included in this blog post. Thank you to all the theater professionals who contributed to the list.

"The Maids" is staple material for acting or theater students in Manila, being restaged every so many years.

At University of the Philippines, just with the past few years, with Cindy Mayo, Lucky De Mesa and Hazel Maranan alternating in all three roles directed by Paul Santiago using a group translation by all four ("Ang Seremonya") with Chic San Agustin as Madame (2010);

Jules dela Paz (Solange), RJ Solis (Claire) and Jacinta Remulla (Madame) directed by Victor Villareal (2008).

In the 90s with Lia Moran (Solange), Starr Dimayuga (Claire) and Bobong Lacanilao (Madame) directed by Grace Budac;

in the late 70s, translated by Adele Victorino ("Ang Mga Muchacha") directed by Jorge Ledesma under Juan's supervision with Betty Mae Piccio as Clara, Ces Mangay (now Quesada) as Soledad, and Ledesma as Senyora (Madame).

At Ateneo de Manila University in 1969, with Jo-Ann Maglipon (Claire), Nieves Campa (Solange) and Cherry Mercado (Madame) directed by Paul Dumol for Rolando Tinio's Ateneo Drama Group.