THE MAIDS by Jean Genet, directed by Diana Leblanc, with Martha Burns, Charmion King and Nancy Palk. Previews begin Friday (August 23), opens Wednesday (August 28) and runs in rep to October 3. $27-$46, stu $25. Du Maurier Theatre Centre (231 Queen's Quay West). 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
Diana Leblanc is a hot director. And it's not just because we're meeting on another of those August humidex-and-smog record-breakers.The talented director and actor, one of the founders of Soulpepper Theatre, shows up in a large, floppy straw hat and sunglasses that give her the look of an aloof woman of mystery.
But when we settle down for a dialogue, off come the hat and glasses and she's immediately present. Leblanc talks for nearly an hour without breaking eye contact, gathering together a skein of intelligent thoughts about her latest project, directing Jean Genet's The Maids for Soulpepper.
She does more than just talk (see sidebar, this page). Leblanc's been one of the major supporters -- performing in both French and English -- of Michel Tremblay's plays, appeared in works by Sharon Pollock, John Murrell and Shakespeare, directed some of Stratford's finest productions and operas across the country, and has been up for Dora and Gemini awards.
But she faces a new set of challenges in Genet's fact-based 1940 play about the complex power dynamics within the servant-master relationship.
"It's one of those plays that lots of people talk about but few have seen," she says with a little smile. ""Oh, yes,' they say vaguely, "I remember a college production but can't recall any details.'
"The Maids is one of those works that loom large, that send out ripples in the theatre world without people being able to conjure up specifics."
At a basic level the piece is about ritual, about a game in which two sisters alternately play employer and servant. But the upstairs/downstairs nature of the "ceremony," as they call it -- which goes into far darker areas than Masterpiece Theatre ever dreamed -- contains subtle reversals, so that at times the obedient maid is the one in command.
"There's a religious feel to the whole thing, something I recall from my old-fashioned Catholic upbringing in Quebec. I breathed in that kind of ritual," offers Leblanc between sips of coffee.
"But these women's ritual has another aspect, one that requires humiliation in order to reach exultation. The ceremony, part of their daily lives, is especially crucial and dangerous this evening. Ratcheted up by improvisation, the repetition drives their vulnerable imaginations wild and, frankly, toward psychosis."
Leblanc spent eight seasons at Stratford and ran Théâtre Français de Toronto for seven. She's not a concept director who imposes her take on a script, but instead works closely with a text's language and emotions. Maybe it's because of her acting roots.
Still, she admits that The Maids requires a different kind of directing than she's used to.
"I've never dealt with a show so what?" -- her hands make parentheses on either side of her head as she searches for the phrase -- "dense and not at all obvious as we work on it. We keep doing scenes again and again as I try to help the actors find what grounds the extraordinary language and what the relationships are about."
Leblanc suggested the piece to artistic director Albert Schultz as a vehicle for "the fabulous women" who are part of the Soulpepper team: Martha Burns, Nancy Palk and Charmion King. Palk and Burns, who play sisters "in each other's hearts and at each other's throats," are able to create a sizzling chemistry because they've worked together onstage and off for years.
I mention to Leblanc a mid-80s Mercury Theatre production at the Poor Alex that featured an all-male cast.
"There was an early thought that if we had the time we might double-cast the show, one version with men and one with women," she says. "But if you do The Maids with men, you make one decision and let the obvious camp and entertainment value -- burly guys in white sequin dresses -- define much of the show.
"That's the easier route. Casting women, I think, allows for more complexity. I knew the show would be difficult to work on -- and it has been -- but I hadn't expected it to be so thrilling." firstname.lastname@example.org