Though Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids (Les Bonnes) is known as a sadomasochistic, cruel and absurd work, director Stephen Simalchik says he would describe his Offstage Theatre production as playful before he would call it dark.
“Something that is only cruel or shocking I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time on,” he says. “We’re trying to understand it on more human terms, to reflect on the circumstances wherein people would actually behave this way.”
The play is believed to be based on a real-life French murder case that occurred in 1933, when two sisters employed as maids, Christine Papin (age 27) and Léa Papin (age 23), murdered their mistress and her adult daughter. Most productions tend to focus on the cruelty—a recent modernized English translation increased the violence of the language itself in a 2014 Lincoln Center staging starring Cate Blanchett. But from the moment Simalchik decided to direct this play using the original English translation, he was struck by the adolescent tone and envisioned whom he would like to cast as the younger sister, Claire: 16-year-old Emma Strock. He had worked with Emma before at Charlottesville High School and asked her to read The Maids and give him her impressions.
“I think that, in truth, the idea and the actress were the same thought,” says Simalchik. “But it doesn’t amount to anything unless the actor can respond to and process the material. She could see in her own way how it could translate into adolescence. It’s actually a judgment on Genet. These characters are people who don’t even understand themselves.”
For the older sister, Solange, Simalchik cast 19-year-old Arrietta van der Voort. He explains that skewing the characters younger translates the work into a slightly different state. His interpretation makes sense, though, as there is a good deal of pretending that goes on within the play as the sisters dress up in Madame’s clothes in order to act out their fantasies.
“It’s still the worst 70 minutes of someone’s life, among the three characters, but [the sisters] are still children playing,” says Simalchik.
The young age of the actors also serves to highlight how tightly their sisterhood binds them, emphasizing their dependence on each other.
“Sisterhood has been talked about a great deal in rehearsal,” Simalchik says. “Interpersonal relationships are at the heart of the play.”
The project was born months ago when Megan Hillary, who plays Madame and designed the set, began collaborating with Simalchik. They were in need of a performance space when they connected with Bree Luck, the artistic director for Offstage Theatre. Luck reached out to potential venues and was able to secure the historic McShane House, a mansion built in the 1930s and tucked away in the trees on Maury Avenue, an unlikely location near the bustle of Stadium Road. The era of the house’s construction made it perfect for the play.
“Because we’re in the right venue, the architecture is already creating a wonderful space for us,” Simalchik says. “There’s a starting point. It’s already saturated in a way. The house only gives us advantages.”
There are no scene changes. Rather, the play takes place over the course of 70 minutes in the bedroom of Madame, whom Simalchik describes as “an obnoxiously wealthy Parisian woman.” For the audience, he says, “it will be recognizable as theater. The conventions of theater performance are still there. It’s not immersive. It’s just happening in a site-specific location.”
Offstage Theatre has described the production as an “investigation into the confused and dangerous mindset of class-based murder.” Genet, who had spent some time in prison, wrote it in his 30s as an exploration of power and oppression.
“He had a complicated relationship to power and class,” says Simalchik, who was also drawn to the play because of his own questions about class and a desire to explore its complications.
And, as a director, he is aware of not just representations of class on stage, but of gender as well. He notes the abundance of roles available to white men and the need to pay attention to whose stories are being represented in theater.
“I can’t escape my identity as a white guy, but I can find stories that women will want to work on,” he says. “This is a difficult play for an actress of any age. It’s a crowning play for three powerful women. There are not many plays like that.”