Nervous Theatre Stages Genet's 'The Maids'
Nomadic company brings theater of the absurd to Tenth Avenue Arts Center
"The Balcony" (1963)
"The Maids" (1975)
It’s not easy flying into a town on Tuesday and having to mount a show in a theater you have never performed in before by Friday. But Connor Berkompas and his Nervous Theatre company wouldn’t have it any other way.
"We're not really interested in having a theater that we call our own," Berkompas said after having just arrived in San Diego on Tuesday. "Instead what we're interested in creating works and making productions and then taking those productions kind of wherever the wind takes us and it just seems a little run of the mill to put something in one space and then call it a day."
The challenge of trying to fill seats for a performance that only runs three days in an unfamiliar town is intensified when the play is Jean Genet’s "The Maids." Genet designed his play to provoke with bold sexual politics, and a ruthless exploration of social inequities, and both themes resonate today. Genet looked to the scandalous real life case of the two Papin sisters who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter in 1933 France.
The play reimagines the sisters as two maids named Claire and Solange. Each night while Madame is out, they perform a secret ceremony in which one sister plays Madame and the other the maid. In this production, Dylan Whelan (who goes by the stage name of Sympathie the Clown) plays Claire and Berkompas is Solange.
Genet had expressed interest in seeing men play the female roles and Whelan likes how that can challenge expectations.
"I like to think that our production is tackling not only the class struggle between these characters but also what it means to be oppressed and what you're allowed to express yourself as and the ways we present ourselves and the places we're told to be in society," Whelan said. "And I think these classic plays that we love and revere have to change and grow to continue to be played to different audiences and I think we do that with this production."
Berkompas, who also directs this production, added that the play presents gender as performance so why not lean into that theatricality.
"It’s so theatrical and we kind of wanted to capitalize on that. So our production kind of jumps through these different genres as the sisters put on these different roles and as they're forced to kind of present themselves in deference to whoever else is in the room," Whelan said.
In the case of this production that includes the audience.
"We do have audience members on both sides of the action and we're going to kind of set up a temporary audience on the stage to keep that intimacy and maintain this feeling that these two maids are always being watched," Berkompas said.
Whelan likes that intimacy.
"We talk about how theater is a community and we're all in this together and it's a very communal experience," Whelan said. "But you just sit in the dark for two and half hours while you're ignored by the people on stage and so you have people sitting on stage with you and to be so close and a part of the action and sometimes able to address these people. It actually feels like a community and like we're going through this together step by step."
Going through it together but not holding the audience’s hand and making sure they are following along.
"I love walking out and not fully understanding what I've just seen because then that means that they weren't pandering to me. They weren't holding my hand there," Berkompas said. "They just kind of let it speak for itself and I'm left assembling the pieces in my own mind and I love that feeling and I think a lot of audience members do too. I just think there's not a lot of trust in audiences nowadays especially when there's so much money riding on productions and there's so much pressure to be commercially viable and to fill those seats. So I totally understand why show like 'The Maids' aren’t produced more often."
But as a nomadic company Nervous Theatre can take more risks and pursue alternate approaches to engaging an audience.
"We've talked so much about universality and how that's not something we're always interested in in making theater just because we think that can kind of take away from understanding someone else's circumstances sometimes," Berkompas said. "And so we absolutely hope that people will find things to relate to and we hope that everyone will get something out of this. But I think what's more important than relating to it on an individual level is watching these two people struggling and kind of having an evening where we just exercise our empathy."
And maybe empathy is precisely what we need in divisive times.
You can purchase ticket online for any on of the four performances running through Sunday.