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Just Like Jean Genet Always Wanted: Gender-fluid Casting in The Maids

The Maids at Artistic Home in ChicagoDisguise is a recurring motif in the plays of 20th-century French author Jean Genet—indeed, the premise for his 1956 shocker, The Balcony, proposed a brothel trafficking exclusively in costumed fantasies of authority figures such as magistrates, archbishops and generals. The Maids, by contrast, opens on a servant meekly submitting to the verbal abuse of her vain mistress (the latter of whom, after having denounced her husband to the police, now prepares to embark on her next liaison). Gradually, however, we become aware that both women are, in fact, menials, their charade mirroring the domestic exploitation they suffer daily.

Genet had long expressed a wish for the housekeepers in his play—based on a real-life homicide called by journalist Janet Flanner, "not a murder, but a revolution"—to be portrayed by male actors dressed in female garb, thus further heightening the tension between reality and illusion. This would have been understandably unlikely in 1954, but theaters in subsequent decades continue to display reluctance toward the playwright's request regarding what scholars consider to be his "breakout" play. This hesitation—despite a growing tolerance for cross-gender casting (Brian Bedford, Geoffrey Rush and Stephen Fry have all had a turn at Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell)—is part of what propelled director Michael Conroy and The Artistic Home to cast their production with drag performers Patience Darling and Hinkypunk in the coveted roles of the bullied siblings.

Theatergoers are warned not to arrive expecting shrill camp-comedy, though. "Genet has always been fascinated with exploring the different aspects of his characters' personalities, and how they change in accordance with their circumstances," Conroy reminds us, "but gender role-play is something in which we all participate, every day—through the clothes we choose to wear and the pronouns we employ. While there are moments of humor in The Maids, we will be playing the text with a minimum of affectation. Genet laid out the trail markers for a sincere affirmation of queer identity and gender nonconformance without irony or implied humor."

While Conroy attributes the concept of doing The Maids ("the way Genet would have wanted") to [artistic director] Kathy Scambiatterra and [associate artistic director] Kayla Adams, both of whom were impressed by Darling's drag designs for Artistic Home's Jeff-nominated production of The School For Lies, Darling and Hinkypunk still had to audition before being selected. "Chicago is one of the best drag cities in the world!"exults Conroy, "Many of its drag queens are theater-trained, and even the ones that aren't have a natural affinity for theatrical performance due to their artistry. Our show is an unabashed celebration of the queer imagination and the range of what drag can accomplish within the theater."

What else does Conroy anticipate playgoers learning from the visual dissonance generated by the shifting levels of perception in this production? "There's been a surge of interest in the drag experience, but my personal hope is that audiences will be excited to see drag artists in this new context. Expanding the casting boundaries to encompass a gender-fluid sensibility enables us to further examine the ways in which prescribed social roles can prove oppressing—or freeing, sometimes-in a heteronormative world."

The Maids runs at The Artistic Home through July 14.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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