KPBS AIRDATE: July 02, 2004
There’s no better place for a claustrophobic domestic drama than a close, confined space. Two small, classic gems get a platinum setting in the tiny 6th @ Penn Theatre. Though family is central, politics underlies both taut, airless plays. In Athol Fugard’s “A Lesson From Aloes,” the backdrop is his native South Africa’s oppressive apartheid policy. In Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” the focus is on misfits and class distinctions. How the theater morphs into two such different environments for on- and off-night productions is nothing short of miraculous — from Kevin Judge’s over-stuffed set for “The Maids,” crammed with flowers and fancy dresses, to Matt Scott’s spare, stifling desert setting for Fugard’s poignant play.
This 1980 winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award is one of the South African master’s finest. It starts small, just a non-communicative couple expecting visitors. But it’s 1963, and we’re privy to a triangle of pain created by apartheid. No one is exempt from anguish and disfigurement. Not Piet, the white Afrikaner bus driver; nor his wife, Gladys, who represents British imperialism; nor Steve, the “coloured” revolutionary who has spent years in jail. Each of these lives has been all but demolished.
Luis Torner has directed with subtle intensity. The characters are stunningly portrayed by compelling Bernard Baldan, too long missing from local stages; anguished, tragically affecting Linda Castro, and an angry, beaten-down Rhys Green. If all three had accents, instead of only Green, it would highlight the distinct social backgrounds. But this is an emotionally gripping piece in any tongue, and a searing reminder of the damage created by suppression. And what is the lesson from aloes, that perennial succulent? They provide a pulpy symbol of survival — tough on the outside, soft on the inside, and able to endure even the most punishing environment.
There’s no such hopeful metaphor in “The Maids,” a disturbing 1948 play loosely based on the 1930s murder of their mistress by two incestuous domestics. Genet, himself an outcast and ex-con, disdained authority, and his work was defiantly anti-bourgeois, fetishistic and perverse. This play shatters illusions about love, hate and the very nature of reality. The two sisters engage in dangerous, deadly games — ritualistic, sado-masochistic role-plays that demean and disgrace their Madame and themselves. Spite, sexual jealousy, deceit and self-loathing infuse nearly every line of dialogue. The ending is shocking, the final moments, enigmatic. This one’s not for everybody. But it’s a striking production, adroitly directed by the Rep’s Sam Woodhouse. Anne Tran and Laurie Lehmann-Gray do their best work, as the gorgeously imperious Madame and the fawning, yet vicious Claire, with Dana Hooley chilling as the passionately cruel Solange.
Two gripping trios in one small space. The stories are compact; the effects, expansive.
>©2004 Patté Productions Inc.