Jack Ferver Serves Up a Surprisingly Conservative Version of “The Maids” at the New Museum
There’s nothing to earn a performer the audience’s sympathy like an accident that draws blood, as happened Friday night at the New Museum for Jack Ferver’s Chambre, a take on Jean Genet’s The Maids, part of the 2015 Crossing the Line Festival. It was a momentary hiccough, which—speaking to his skill as a performer—Ferver deftly handled, and was by all appearances thankfully minor (though it did add some urgency to his post curtain-call monologue about not having access to health insurance). Unfortunately, the show itself I found a great deal more problematic and even disappointing. Whether intentionally or not, what Ferver has served up is a very conservative—and shallowly meta—version of Genet’s famous one-act, which has a great deal more to do with how the play is conventionally understood than in using it as an exploration of anything beyond itself.
There’s a long-standing and highly dubious notion that Genet intended the play—about a pair of maids who role-play a fantasy of murdering their boss, a wealthy woman—to be a drag show performed by men. The claim actually comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, in his highly subjective biography Saint Genet, and is taken from an off-hand comment made by a character in the novel Our Lady of the Flowers, that, “If I were to have a play put on in which women had roles, I would demand those roles be performed by adolescent boys…”
Despite the fact that Genet himself never exactly endorsed this interpretation, it’s stuck, largely because English language publishers of the play excerpted that chapter from Saint Genet as an introduction (you can read it on Amazon). Adding to the suspect nature of the claim is the fact that the Sartre’s book was from 1952, prior to Genet’s most productive period as a playwright, starting in 1957 with The Balcony, 1959’s The Blacks, and The Screens in 1964. Those plays feature dozens of female roles, yet that broad statement quoted by Sartre is not applied to them, and remains exclusively tied to The Maids for no other reason than Sartre made the claim prior to them being written.
In any event, The Maids does lend itself well to cross-dressing performance, what with its central device of role-playing and dress-up, and themes of transgressive eroticism and eroticized violence, envy, and glamour. It’s been frequently performed by men, and even when performed by women, productions often luxuriate in its dirty glam such that the women wind up performing a camp version of femininity, a drag act on themselves.
All of which is to say that Ferver’s decision to cast himself and Jacob Slominski in the roles of the maids isn’t subversive. Rather, it’s wholly consistent with a tradition dating back more than half a century. And indeed, even this production’s beautiful scenography (including whitewashed sculptural installations by Marc Swanson) is derivative, exploying all the stereotypical elements you expect from a production of The Maids: an immaculate setting (the labor of cleanliness being a major theme), a rack of glamorous clothes prominently featured onstage, and, in particular, a mirror that—contra standard theatrical practice—prominently faces the audience so that they can see themselves reflected in it.
Ferver’s primary innovation is to dispense entirely with Genet’s original text (except as a referent). Instead, he starts with a monologue culled from a deposition by Lady Gaga from a lawsuit by a former assistant. Delivered high-camp, the monologue touches on all of the characteristics Genet explores in his Madame (the maids’ employer), the maternalism and condescension, the presumption that, but for her, the employee would be worse off, and the notion that the proximity to the material benefits of someone else’s wealth makes up for being forced into a subservient role.
From there, Ferver leads us through a bit of dramaturgy about the original play, with a few details about the backstory of the Papin Sisters, who are widely regarded to have inspired Genet. Ferver even appropriates their names (Christine and Lea) for character names. He and Slominski then enact a compact version of Genet’s narrative, with winking references to the original text, set in the contemporary. Occasionally, Ferver weaves in a reference to actual statements by the Papin Sisters, but overall the text itself is quite light and campy, imitative and false, despite all of its reference to “reality.”
Much of the performance’s problems stem from the gender-bending. Sartre’s interpretation of The Maids as a drag performance always served to obliterate women from a story ostensibly about women. While Genet’s own relationship with gender is certainly fraught throughout his oeuvre, Sartre’s always done him a bit of a disservice, and Ferver’s interpretation is troubling in this regard. Michelle Mola is cast in the role of the Madame, the maids’ employer, here re-imagined as an entitled pop diva like Lady Gaga. She doesn’t even actually speak onstage, instead performing an elaborate pop choreography while lip-syncing to a pre-recorded audio track, which further serves to deny any sort of female agency.
And that makes it doubly troubling when Ferver stages her quite savage murder. Not only is violence in this performance reserved exclusively for a female body, but the only sound the female performer actually makes on stage is the sound of being choked and beaten by a man. After thrashing around backstage for some time in her gasping death-throes, Mola finally drags herself out onstage to artfully cast her dead-self across the floor, all smeared make-up and exposed breasts, in the sort of image that draws ire when fashion photographers employ it (as they frequently do).
To be clear, none of this is new or has much uniquely to do with Ferver’s choices. Feminism and drag have always had a (let me be euphemistic) complicated relationship. But I was surprised that Ferver wound up stuck here. He’s smart and talented as an artist, and it was odd to see him being so conservative, merely replicating a problematic interpretation that’s been imposed on the play almost since it premiered in 1947. It’s not used as a means of exploring much of anything, nor it is interrogated or challenged. Much like the contemporary references to celebrity and envy, it’s just referenced as though that somehow constitutes a critique. The end result is a performance that, for all its strengths, leaves you with the distinct feeling that Ferver didn’t really have much to say about any of the material he addresses.