Jean Genet was a petty criminal, a prostitute, and a professional provocateur. And his first play, 1947's The Maids, still has the power to shock. In fact, the Sydney Theater Company's high-camp new version starring Cate Blachett and Isabelle Huppert suggests an absurdist take on an Occupy Wall Street demonstration by way of a no-tables-unoverturned Real Housewives marathon.
Blanchett and Huppert play sisters, Claire and Solange, long-suffering domestics of a haughty and much younger Mistress (the hilariously waspish Elizabeth Debicki, looking like a statuesque version of Blanchett from a few decades ago). Genet had loosely based the characters on real maids who murdered their mistress and her grown daughter. In Genet's Brechtian reconception, though, the sisters merely play-act an attempted homicide with each other in an elaborate and recurring ritual that involves dress-up, pyscho-sexual gamesmanship, and much raunchy perversity.
Mistress' casual cruelty is mirrored in the way Claire and Solange behave with each other, envying and emulating and rejecting the privilege that surrounds them in rapid succession. ''It's easy to be kind and sweet and smile when you're beautiful and rich,'' Huppert says at one point. ''What about when you're the maid?''
Blanchett shows a sublime range in her highly physical performance, whether she's flagellating her back with a long-stem gladiola or prancing about the stage with Huppert being dragged along on the train of her dress. Huppert, meanwhile, tends toward the purely histrionic and her thick French accent can make her longer speeches a challenge to understand.
Benedict Andrews' production, playing through Aug. 16 at Manhattan's City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, almost seems to fetishize the offputting wealth and obnoxiousness of the Mistress. The set, by designer Alice Babidge, features a long rack of couture outfits (Alexander McQueen gets a name-check in Andrews' and Andrew Upton's translation), mirrored walls, sleek white furniture, a florist shop's inventory of bouquets, and a giant screen for simultaneous video projections that offer closeups of the action on stage. (The video sequences add a layer of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? ghoulishness, upping the camp factor several notches.)
There's a delicious irony here that Genet himself might have appreciated. His diatribe against the inhumane arrogance of one-percenters is now one of the hottest tickets of the summer, with prime seats selling for $300 (pre-StubHub). One imagines there might be a few Park Avenue domestics (or maybe Tribeca P.A.s) who'd contemplate offing their boss to score a spot in the mezzanine. B+
(Tickets: Lincoln Center Festival)