Theaters

Domestic Workers Air Their Dirty Laundry Onstage

Sister Sylvester's 'The Maids' The Maids' at Abrons Arts Center, with  Terence Mintern (background on table) and Sofia Ortega (background under table); Rita Oliveira and Laudiceia Calixto (foreground) (all photos by Jill Steinberg)
Sister Sylvester’s ‘The Maids’ The Maids’ at Abrons Arts Center, with Terence Mintern (background on table) and Sofia Ortega (background under table); Rita Oliveira and Laudiceia Calixto (foreground) (all photos by Jill Steinberg)

Laudicieia Calixto and Rita Oliveira enter the space of the Abrons Arts Center’s Experimental Theater and find themselves in a somewhat familiar scene: a slightly cluttered apartment, littered with fancy gowns, full-length mirror, desk, phone, assorted wigs. It’s a scene that depicts fairly standard metropolitan confines of a certain socioeconomic class, and the two women, professional domestic workers in New York City for the past two decades, put their hair back and begin straightening up. This is what they do on a regular basis, after all: clean the insides of strangers’ apartments. It’s unlikely, however, that they’ve ever “performed” these actions with an audience present — until now.

This is the theater company Sister Sylvester’s take on French playwright Jean Genet’s 1947 one-act The Maids. The new version, titled The Maids’ The Maids and directed by Kathryn Hamilton, re-envisions Genet’s work as an episodic, semi-biographical account of domestic workers who imagine what life is like on the other side. The original tale was decidedly more violent than this production, touching on the real-life story of Christine and Léa Papin, sisters and maids who murdered their employer and her daughter in Le Mans, France, in 1933. The vindictive crime rendered the sisters infamous, especially among French intellectuals at the time, including Sartre, Lacan, and Genet.

Rita Oliveira, Sofia Ortega, and Terence Mintern (background); Laudiceia Calixto (foreground) in 'The Maids' The Maids'
Rita Oliveira, Sofia Ortega, and Terence Mintern (background); Laudiceia Calixto (foreground) in ‘The Maids’ The Maids’ (click to enlarge)

There are a few dialogic intersections with the original script, but the current production is most compelling in its strange divergences. An interview scene, in the telling vein of devised theater, has each performer explain her personal involvement with the production. We learn that most of the performers had previously worked with Hamilton or were brought on for their language skills (the show uses spoken and subtitled English, Portuguese, and Spanish). One of the performers, Sofia Ortega, notes that she was hired to fill in when Oliveira had to miss rehearsal because of a conflict with her actual maid job — an interesting note that speaks to the lines between labor, obligation, and artifice that the production seeks to uncover.

We also find out that Calixto met Hamilton when the director was staying at a friend’s apartment and was ushered into the neighbor’s place by the unwitting maid to sit on the much nicer couch. In a weird art-meets-life scenario, Hamilton later gave Calixto a copy of Genet’s play (a text Calixto did not even read all the way through, saying she found it “boring”) and enlisted her and Oliveira for the production. These women have since taken ownership of the material in a way that is admirable and endearing; there were very few moments in which they seemed to be “acting” and many more that felt like they were casually telling a familiar story to friends.

Ultimately, this is Calixto and Oliveira’s story, not the Papin sisters. At one point, Calixto, in a candid interview sequence with performer Terence Mintern, admits to the delicate balance learned over years of cleaning homes: the disparity between being part of the family and being totally shut out. Hamilton, in turn, took a chance in exposing not only a real-life account of domestic work, in all its unglamorous difficulty, but also how Genet’s story can root itself in honest ground in a contemporary context. Calixto and Oliveira are gritty offsets to Genet’s seemingly polished and pristine maids. Scenes in which other actors depict the women’s previous lives, as a bank teller and a casino worker in their native Brazil, hilariously reveal how labor, work, and a zeal to make an honest living have for them, as for many of us, defined their lives.

Rita Oliveira, Sofia Ortega, and Terence Mintern in 'The Maids' The Maids'
Rita Oliveira, Sofia Ortega, and Terence Mintern in ‘The Maids’ The Maids’

It’s worth mentioning the wonderful cross-dressing efforts by Terence Mintern, a captivating storyteller expected to go from bougie mistress to Brazilian bank teller at a moment’s notice. His acting was illustrative of the compelling effects of zooming in and out of narrative and history that propelled the work. Overlapping and layered scenes allowed the performers to constantly comment on the action while still playing it out. When Mintern assumes his role as bank teller, Calixto advises her “former self” on the task. “He’s doing very good. This is what I used to do,” she tells us.

Though Sister Sylvester’s production doesn’t make a practice of explicitly referring to Genet’s text, themes of industry and class mobility come to the fore. In a humorous aside, Oliveira mentions her confusion over the seeming glamour of appearing in this production: “I thought I would be at Lincoln Center!” The most recent production of The Maids was this past August at the Lincoln Center Festival, but it’s unclear whether this is an honest statement by Calixto or sly hyperbole built in to the script (or both). The Maids’ The Maids accumulates these moments of aspiration and class-consciousness, only to pry at the edges of their innate absurdity.

I was too caught up in the chaos of scene changes, storytelling, and subtitles to remember the horrific events of the original narrative. However, a dramatic seed blossoms late in the production when the otherwise goofy Isabel Sanchez delivers a sedating monologue on the real-life implications of the Papin sisters’ brutal act. Sanchez explains that their crime was later revealed in court as an act of mental instability, not sick malevolence. This information caused the general public to lose interest in what had been a highly publicized case. Sanchez points out that their cloudy mental state lessened the legitimacy of their crime in the public’s opinion, making them immediately less interesting.

Rita Oliveira, Sofia Ortega (partially visible behind mirror), and Isabel Sanchez (floor) in 'The Maids' The Maids'
Rita Oliveira, Sofia Ortega (partially visible behind mirror), and Isabel Sanchez (floor) in ‘The Maids’ The Maids’

“How did the most famous maids in France get to be forgotten?” she asks desperately, naked and shaking, confronting us with her gaze and exhausted from retracing this tale. The Papin sisters may not have been seeking fame, but Genet, and now Sister Sylvester, allow them to live on. And rightly so. Sometimes a work of theater, however absurd or unfortunate, is the only way for stories to remain intact.

Sister Sylvester: The Maids’ The Maids continues through November 8 at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St, Lower East Side, Manhattan). Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online.

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