I disappeared for a little while. It was because I was working on my novel, but it was also because I was working on two other projects that required my complete and total attention.
I recently finished production on a show titled The Maids and began work on Rent.
The Maids is an absurd show based on the life of two sisters that killed their mistress and her daughter 80 years ago.
Léa and Christine Papin were convicted of the brutal double murder of Madame Lancelin and her daughter in Le Mans, France on February 2, 1933 . The two victims were beaten so fiercely they were unrecognizable, their eyes had been plucked from her sockets. They were left on the floor where they died. The sister maids were found upstairs in their room together, naked in bed.
They confessed to killing the women using a kitchen knife, a hammer and a pewter pot.
The sisters were tried and convicted of murder. During the trial, it was argued that Christine had been the mastermind of the murder, while Léa had been dominated to the point at which her personality had virtually disappeared. Christine was sentenced to death, but Léa was given the lighter sentence of ten years in prison.
Since the trial, the two sisters and their actions were the subject of various plays and films that base the decision to kill their Madame was a statement on class structure.
The script we used, titled The Maids, was written by Jean Genet. It’s a three woman show centering around the role-playing game the sisters, Claire and Solange, enact as they plot the murder of their mistress, simple named Madame. The play is loosely based on the story of the Papin sisters, but ultimately Madame gets away leaving the sisters to perform the final act of their game without her.
The play is what is called Theatre of the Absurd. In his book “History of the Theatre”, Oscar Brockett says, “His [Albert Camus] influence on the theatre came in part from his essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (1943), in which his discussion of the word ‘absurd’ was to supply the name for the absurdist movement. In this essay, Camus argues that the human conditions is absurd because of the gap between people’s hope and the irrational universe into which they are born.” Somewhere out there, Dr. Rosemary Bank feels a disturbance in the force and knows one of her former students just quoted Brockett. If you’re reading this, Dr. Bank, I thank you.
We strove to make our world as realistic as possible, without missing the fact that this was an absurd show. With real period furniture in a 3-quarter round set-up (As in the audience is seating on three sides of the stage) we provided an intimate production of this one act play. It ran 1 hr. and 20 mins long.
The dialogue in the show is remarkably difficult, and I grew increasingly prouder of the three undergraduate actresses performing this work. With lines like, “We’ve read the story of Sister Holy Cross of the Blessed Valley who poisoned twenty-seven Arabs. She waked without shoes, with her feet all stiff. She was lifted up, carried off to the crime. We’ve read the story of Princess Albanarez who caused the death of her lover and her husband. She uncorked the bottle and made a big sign of the cross over the goblet. As she stood before the corpses, she saw only death and, off in the distance, the fleet image of herself being carried by the wind. She made all the gestures of earthly despair. In the book about the Marquise de Venosa, the one who poisoned her children, we’re told that, as she approached the bed, her arms were supported by the ghost of her lover.”
The epic ending of the performance is foreshadowed by a three-page monologue by Solange where she describes funeral proceedings, “Out on your balconies to see her making her way among the shadowy penitents! It’s noon. She’s carrying a nine-pound torch. The hangman follows close behind. He’s whispering sweet nothing in her ear. Claire! The hangman’s by my side. Now take your hand off my waist. He’s trying to kiss me! Let go of me! Ah! Ah! [She laughs.] The hangman’s trifling with me.”
With the show in my wake, I look back with a bitter-sweetness. As is usually the case in theatre, we became a small family through the six weeks of rehearsals. And now, while I still see these three ladies in the hallways at Tri-C we don’t spend our evenings together. I am creating a new small family in the cast of Rent that will open in April.
There will always be another show, another production, another project on the horizon. But it is rare when a production brings a group of people together that doesn’t end with everyone hating each other. This was not one of those processes. I am honored to have been the stage manager to these three ladies. One day each one of them will spread their little wings and fly off to bigger and better theatres, but I will know that I had a small part in bringing them up right.