Granted, he's not the first to suggest this. Even Shakespeare had characters who saw all the world as a stage and an insubstantial pageant.
But Genet pushes the idea farther than most. In The Blacks, Africans perform a ritual of the rape and murder of a European – who is a black in whiteface. The Maids, currently being produced by Upstream Theater in the Kranzberg Arts Center, opens with a wealthy woman upbraiding her submissive maid. Then an alarm rings and those two individuals, in Prospero's words, "are melted into air, into thin air," revealing each of them to be someone other than they seemed.
But the performance provides the maids with an outlet for venting their disgust with themselves and their position in society and their urge to revenge themselves on their superiors. Genet creates for them a poetry of revulsion and hate, full of images of spit and dirt.
In the Upstream production, the fantasy begins with the absolutely fabulous – those are the words for it – absolutely fabulous set by Jason Coale, with help from props designer Robert van Dillen. It's a flower-stuffed, over-decorated romantic dream of a bedroom. The indulgence continues with Michele Siler's costumes – not the maids' black uniforms but the mistress's cascading furs, and with Chris Limber's sound design and Glenn Dunn's lights.
Wieslaw Gorski directs with care for the balance between the real and the pretend. If I might at times have liked a little more one way or the other, Emily Baker and Brooke Edwards thoroughly inhabit the two maids. Baker has a magnificent tirade of romantic rebellion and sacrifice, and Edwards is chilling in the play's final moments. Both sometimes need to remember that even in the close confines of the intimate Kranzberg theatre, we do need to hear them. Elizabeth Ann Townsend revels in the mistress's own melodramatic fantasy of self-sacrifice, almost starting to pack to accompany her falsely accused lover to exile on Devil's Island.
In The Maids, Genet finds a highly theatrical way to raise philosophical questions about the nature of reality and our perception of it. I'm grateful to Upstream Theater for giving us this opportunity to see it again done so well.