Maids in Heaven

THE MAIDS by Jean Genet, directed by Diana Leblanc, with Martha Burns, Nancy Palk and Charmion King. Presented by Soulpepper.

THE MAIDS by Jean Genet, directed by Diana Leblanc, with Martha Burns, Nancy Palk and Charmion King. Presented by Soulpepper at the du Maurier Theatre (231 Queen’s Quay West). Runs in rep to October 3. $27-$46, stu $25. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN

You’ll find more role-playing, fetishizing and psychological fucking around in Jean Genet’s The Maids than you will in most bedrooms.The much-mythologized French writer’s 1940 classic about two sisters and their plot to overthrow their mistress holds up well in Soulpepper director Diana Leblanc’s polished, gleaming production.

After a ghostly aural cue of two girls singing en francais — a nice touch — the play begins. And what a beginning. The scrim remains down — another nice touch — to suggest we’re witnessing something private, or that things aren’t as they seem in this scene of power-wielding and subservience.

When a bell rings, the scrim comes up, and though we’re meant to feel what we’re seeing is more real, more based in fact, Genet’s point is that fantasies and play-acting reveal lots of truths themselves.

Working with Martin Crimp’s recent smooth translation, Leblanc brings out the work’s many subtle emotional shifts, aided by Astrid Janson’s sets and costumes and Paul Mathieson’s lighting.

Genet’s dark insights into class and human behaviour have aged well, but they aren’t as shocking as they must have been six decades ago. What the play still offers, though, is a firm structure — on the simplest level, you want to stay to find out how the thing ends — and two great female roles.

In the flashier part of the seemingly dominant younger sister, Claire, Martha Burns seethes with disgust and stored-up hatred — watch her facial tics and stutters to cue us when she’s almost losing it — while also evoking the lost child within. Nancy Palk keeps the work grounded, and gains in power at the end, imagining the sisters’ funeral procession.

Charmion King, though sometimes hard to hear — the in-the-round staging, while effective, allows sound problems — brings flair to the role of the fatuous, vain Madame.

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