Review: ‘The Maids’ in Puerto Rico, With Shifts in Power and Gender


A review by Laura Collins-Hughes for the New York Times

The servants are plotting to murder the mistress again, but in José Rivera’s new adaptation of Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” they won’t be bringing her some delicate cup of tea. Instead, it will be a tainted cup of Bustelo as big as your head — coffee, “hot and strong.”

“Like me!” the mistress, La Doña, exults, of course unapprised of the poison. “I’m hot and strong!” Fittingly, she’s also highly toxic.

The balance of power is ever-shifting in Daniel Irizarry’s thrillingly kaleidoscopic, boldly physical world-premiere production at Intar Theater, which puts two pairs of actors — one male, one female — in the title roles.

Mr. Rivera sets the action on Vieques, the island in Puerto Rico, in 1941, the year the United States Navy took over much of its land. But for the moment, La Doña (Mr. Irizarry, an athletic whirl of manic energy) and her unseen husband, Don Lazaro, still control their sugar cane plantation. Communist rebellion is brewing among the workers.

The maids are sisters, Monique and Yvette, and when we first meet them, they are in the midst of the game they indulge in when La Doña is out: Yvette (Charlie Munn) is pretending to be the imperious mistress, while Monique (Casey Robinson) impersonates a humiliated Yvette. Except that the real Yvette, in her anger at Monique, keeps blurring the line between La Doña and herself. Which, yes, makes their bizarre little role-play extra confusing.

“You are so off the rails!” Monique tells her. The same is true — in the best possible way — of this production. Presented with One-Eighth Theater, it cranks the drama up to Technicolor with the first pair of maids, then dials it way down when the second pair takes over. The greater realism between this Monique (Laura Butler Rivera, no relation to the playwright) and Yvette (Folami Williams, acrobatic and fierce) enhances both the menace and the tenderness of their scenes.

Genet’s “The Maids” is much performed, staged in many settings, but there’s a particular urgency to the sisters’ yearning for freedom in Mr. Rivera’s adaptation. That’s partly to do with his chosen location, an island that’s a colonialist pawn, and also with his use of contemporary language. The sisters’ talk of enduring Don Lazaro’s sexual attention has an especially of-the-moment ring.

It’s when Mr. Irizarry starts mixing and matching his Moniques and Yvettes, sometimes including them all onstage at once, that the production most powerfully multiplies and refracts the play’s many spheres of privilege and dominion. Class, sex, race, gender, politics, family: They’re all here, in a glittery, dance-spiked explosion of flowers, feathers and sweat. Also spit, which plays a bigger part than you might expect.

The production’s single misstep comes deep in the performance, when Mr. Irizarry introduces a third Monique (David Dempsey) to deliver her big monologue. (Mr. Rivera played that role early in the run, before bowing out as planned.) It’s a terrific speech, but casting it this way is a distraction that obscures the play.

It does throw one thing into stark relief, though: how vital and gorgeous the rest of this production is.

The Maids

INTAR Theatre

500 W. 52nd St.

Midtown West


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