‘The Maids’ is a provocative exploration of dominance and class conflict

Jean Genet's play based on infamous 1933 French murder case runs at The Theatre on King in downtown Peterborough January 18 to 20

Kate Story and Lindsay Unterlander as sisters and live-in maids Solange and Claire in an erotic role-playing scene from French playwright Jean Genet's 1947 play "The Maids". The play, which runs January 18 to 20 at The Theatre on King in downtown Peterborough, is based on a 1933 murder case in France where two sisters brutally murdered their employer's wife and adult daughter. (Photo: Andy Carroll)
Kate Story and Lindsay Unterlander as sisters and live-in maids Solange and Claire in an erotic role-playing scene from French playwright Jean Genet's 1947 play "The Maids". The play, which runs January 18 to 20 at The Theatre on King in downtown Peterborough, is based on a 1933 murder case in France where two sisters brutally murdered their employer's wife and adult daughter. (Photo: Andy Carroll)

On Thursday January 18th, The Theatre on King (TTOK) starts their year off in a big way with Ryan Kerr’s production of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Maids.

Part psychodrama and part thriller, the play features the talents of Lindsay Unterlander, Kate Story and Sheila Charleton in a challenging show that is intelligent, suspenseful, and highly erotic. In a theatre known for presentation of bold drama, The Maids could be one of the most provocative plays presented at TTOK to date.

Originally presented as Les Bonnes in 1947 at The Theatre de l’Athenee in Paris, The Maids is loosely based on the real-life 1933 Papin murder case that shocked France and became a popular subject and symbol of class struggle for numerous French artists and philosophers, including Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Christine and Léa Papin were sisters hired in 1926 as live-in maids by retired solicitor Rene Lancien. Known to be quiet women who caused little trouble and kept to themselves, the pair became infamous when they brutally murdered Lancien’s wife and adult daughter in a violent assault on February 2, 1933. Offering no explanation for the attack, the sisters were tried and imprisoned, but not without gaining public notoriety for their high-profile crime.

The real-life case in an interesting one filled with incest, lesbianism, manipulation, and insanity, all of which are covered (or hinted at) in The Maids.

By researching this fascinating piece of criminal history prior to seeing the play, I felt it only helped intensified the drama on the TTOK stage. Although the character’s names and events have been changed, The Maids plays out as if Genet is trying to make sense out of the Papin sisters’ motives, by giving them life beyond the sensationalized headlines and contemplating who they were and what their life was like to lead them to murder.

I highly recommend that audience members taking in the play at least read the Wikipedia entry on the Papin sisters. Trust me: once you read that and then see this play, you’ll want to learn even more about the real-life sisters who inspired this drama.

The real-life sisters and live-in maids who inspired Jean Genet's play "The Maids" ("Les Bonnes"). Christine and Léa Papin brutally murdered their employer's wife and adult daughter in Les Mans, France, in 1933. (Photos: Wikipedia)
The real-life sisters and live-in maids who inspired Jean Genet’s play “The Maids” (“Les Bonnes”). Christine and Léa Papin brutally murdered their employer’s wife and adult daughter in Les Mans, France, in 1933. (Photos: Wikipedia)

Genet’s The Maids is a character study of sisters Solange (Kate Story) and Claire (Lindsay Unterlander) who, while their mistress (Sheila Charleton) is away from the great house, delight themselves by wearing her dresses and smothering themselves in her jewels as they indulge in a hyper-sexualized role-playing game of mistress and servant, all ending with the fantasy of murdering their mistress. However, as one sister’s resentment about the balance of power between the two sisters and the actual mistress intensifies, the boundaries between fantasy and reality begins to blur — with deadly results.

Already a fascinating script due to its background story and the strength of its writing, TTOK’s production of The Maids is also brilliantly executed by three of Peterborough’s top actresses. Together, they are a fearless trio who weave together one of the most unapologetically tantalizing productions I have ever seen.

Although it is an uninterrupted one-act play, The Maids is separated into four different scenes without a pause. The first is the initial role-playing scene, the second is a scene between the sisters set in reality, the third is a scene between the sisters and their mistress, and the fourth is the second and final role-playing scene. Each of these scenes examines the nature of the power struggles between the different characters, with each relationship constantly being turned on its head.

Lindsay Unterlander and Kate Story in "The Maids", a pscyhosexual drama that explores dominance in the relationship between the two sisters and between the sisters and their employer. Playwright Jean Genet was inspired by details of the real-life murder case that you can research on Wikipedia before seeing the play. (Photo: Andy Carroll)
Lindsay Unterlander and Kate Story in “The Maids”, a pscyhosexual drama that explores dominance in the relationship between the two sisters and between the sisters and their employer. Playwright Jean Genet was inspired by details of the real-life murder case that you can research on Wikipedia before seeing the play. (Photo: Andy Carroll)

Kate Story as Solange plays the older of the two sisters. She is the angrier and more dominant of the pair and seems to be teetering on the edge of insanity. Despite her dominance, she shows painful submission to both her sister and her mistress, which can be analyzed as the cause of her fractured emotional state. Constantly resentful of her role in the mistress’s home, and within society itself, Solange becomes a personification of pain and resentment.

A complicated character, Solange is portrayed masterfully by Kate, who gives this character many dimensions. Kate’s brightest moments are in the fourth part of the show, where she delivers a five-minute monologue of insanity that becomes more and more terrifying as she continues. Equally fierce and fragile, Kate creates a character who lies somewhere between villain and victim.

Meanwhile, Lindsay Unterlander creates an equally complex character as the younger of the two sisters, Claire. Fierce and abusive in her role playing as the mistress, in reality Claire is the meeker and more sensitive of the two sisters. However, there seems to be more contradictions within Claire than Solange, making the audience question her true feelings and motives.

Does Claire really hate her mistress? What is her relationship with the milk man that her sister keeps talking about? Is it possible that, despite her gentle persona, Claire could be more murderous than her explosive sister? Throughout the show Lindsay puts on the different faces of Claire, as if she is creating a single character with split personalities.

Although her role in the show isn’t nearly as large as that of the sisters, Sheila Charleton creates an interesting character as “The Madam” and adds a third element of complexity to the show. It isn’t completely clear what her true feelings towards the sisters are: at times she seems quite maternal towards them, but always with a tone of smug condescension. She is always aware of the class difference between herself and the sisters and, while she seems genuine in her interactions, she also seems to dismiss the sisters as if they were personal pets or objects to be owned.

The mistress of the house (Sheila Carleton) dominating her live-in maids and sisters Claire (Lindsay Unterlander) and Solange (Kate Story). Genet's play is often considered symbolic of the class struggles of France in the early 20th century.  (Photo: Andy Carroll)
The mistress of the house (Sheila Carleton) dominating her live-in maids and sisters Claire (Lindsay Unterlander) and Solange (Kate Story). Genet’s play is often considered symbolic of the class struggles of France in the early 20th century. (Photo: Andy Carroll)

While The Madam is on the stage, the sisters who stand so ferociously before the audience without her suddenly shrink in submission. It is difficult to watch the callous way the sisters are manipulated into being less than human by their employer. Sheila creates a woman who is her own kind of evil, although she possibly doesn’t even realize it. The result is a third complex character who is also interesting to watch.

One of the most intriguing things about The Maids is the different combinations in which the three characters exercise dominance over one another. There is the way the sisters continue to switch dominance over each other when they are role playing mistress and servant, and then the way they do the same when they return to reality as sisters. Then there is the dominance of the mistress over the two sisters and her individual relationship with each of them.

This constant power struggle, which flips constantly between characters, is the factor of the show that keeps the audience constantly reanalyzing the bizarre relationships between the characters.

What really comes to the forefront of the drama is just how erotic the piece is. Although it never becomes staunchly sexual, the role playing and power dynamics between the sisters — as well as their violent fantasies towards their mistress — border on a kind of kinkiness that’s subtle at times and anything but at others. It really makes the audience begin to question what the sisters’ relationship and feelings towards their mistress are, not to mention each other.

This is an element in the play that no audience member will be able to overlook, but it also becomes the most fascinating part of the performance. It takes a lot of trust between the two actresses to give that kind of performance, and Lindsay and Kate play off each other incredibly well.

The Maids is an intelligent and dark thriller and one of the boldest and most cerebral shows I’ve seen at TTOK in the years that I’ve been doing reviews for kawarthaNOW. I was absolutely captivated by the show and the performances by the three actresses who bring such an interesting drama to life. Ryan and his company have created another memorable show for TTOK, but I can easily say The Maids is one of the most engaging shows I’ve ever seen in this space. If this is the way that TTOK is opening 2018, then its audience has a lot to look forward to.

The Maids runs from January 18th to 20th at The Theatre on King (159 King St., Suite 120, Peterborough). Performances begin at 8 p.m. and tickets are $15 or pay what you can.

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