Review: When Fantasy Goes Too Far...Public Citizen Theatre's THE MAIDS

By: Aug. 09, 2016

Portland has a New Theatre Company! Public Citizen Theatre is the mostly crowdfunded passion project of Amanda Mehl and Aaron Filyaw. For their first production they've chosen Jean Genet's 1947 play THE MAIDS, a sadomasochistic look at domestic servitude, based on the true story of the Papin sisters and translated by Martin Crimp.

THE MAIDS centers on two sisters, Solange (Amanda Mehl) and Claire (Ahna Dunn-Wilder), who are domestic servants in the home of Mistress (Alexandria Casteele). The sisters have concocted an elaborate fantasy of killing Mistress, which they enact while she is away, taking turns playing her by dressing up in her clothes, rouging their cheeks, etc.

In her role as Mistress, Claire abuses her sister both physically and verbally, which elicits in Solange a strange mix of murderous hatred and sexual desire. The make believe stops just short of Solange killing Claire-as-Mistress with her bare hands. We get the idea that the sisters have played out this same scene, or a variation of it, many times.

Here's the weird part. When we finally meet Mistress, which doesn't happen for quite a ways into the play, she just isn't so bad. A bit self-obsessed, sure, but not anywhere near the masochistic demon we'd been expecting. I've never seen this play before, so I'm not sure if this was a directorial choice, but in this production it seemed like the sisters had concocted the entire thing -- not just the murder fantasy, but their poor treatment at Mistress's hands as well. Then, the line between fantasy and reality blurs and things go a bit farther than anyone seems to expect.

The highlight of this production is Ahna Dunn-Wilder as Claire. A recent graduate of Portland Actors Conservatory, Dunn-Wilder gives a polished, nuanced performance that will leave you wondering whether she's just a pawn in the game or a psychopath in her own right.

Of the three actors, Dunn-Wilder is also the one most able to rise to the production's biggest challenge -- the sound. Shaking the Tree Theatre is a warehouse, which requires a good deal of projection to start with. Here, the dialogue was further muffled by the air conditioning, which was absolutely necessary the night I went. Unfortunately, the combination of a large room, the air conditioning, and soft voices made many of the lines difficult to hear. I kept wanting to reach over and turn up the volume about 25%.

Another highlight was the set. I love Shaking the Tree for its versatility, and in this case Tyler Buswell has used it well, particularly the vertical space, which he used to extend the set beyond the room where the action takes place to the surrounding buildings.

This show isn't for everyone. But if you like twisted psychological portraits of disturbed people, then this show might be for you. Overall, I thought it was solid, especially for the inaugural production of a fledgling company.

THE MAIDS runs through August 21. More info and tickets here: