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Jean Genet’s first play, The Maids, is about servitude—more specifically, the seething mutual hatred built into the servant/master relationship. Two maids, the self-lacerating Solange (Nanna Ingvarsson) and headstrong younger sister Claire (Jenifer Deal) attend to their wealthy mistress Madame (Danielle Davy) with dutiful care. Whenever Madame leaves, however, the two sisters ransack her dresses, jewels, and furs to enact a ritualized fantasy wherein one sister assumes Madame’s imperious persona and abuses the other. By the time the action of the play begins, this ritual has been repeated so often it has taken an erotic and ultimately violent turn—this is Genet, after all.

Scena’s attractively designed production has a consistent clarity of focus and stays resolutely grounded in character until the very end—which, when you consider we’re dealing with theater of the absurd here, is really saying something. There are big ideas at work, and more heady bleak symbolism than you can shake a beaten paperback copy of La Nausée at, but director Gabriele Jakobi ensures that the action proceeds according to human logic, not the dreamlike pseudo-logic of abstract ideas.

She accomplishes this by finding three gifted actors who can inhabit Genet’s stylized text and ensure that each ephemeral shift in tone makes emotional, character-driven sense. Watching Deal, we instinctively know when Claire is imitating Madame, when she is imitating Solange, and when Claire is simply herself. Ingvarsson lets us see how Solange’s imperturbable countenance is a sham, and when she finally lets the malice spill out in a lengthy speech near the end, we know what she knows—namely, that her hate is all she needs to sustain her.

Danielle Davy takes care not to turn Madame into a camp caricature by investing her with a canny intelligence. Notice the way she hardly ever takes her eyes off her servants’ dour faces. She knows they’re up to something; it’s just a matter of time before she figures it out.

The characters do go a bit loosey-goosey toward the end, as the emotional truth of the piece gets nudged aside by its larger, symbolic meaning. But even then there’s still plenty of things to enjoy, like Marianne Meadows’ dappled lighting, Chris Pifer’s understated use of music, and lines so hysterically chewy (“Her carnation is the red of our shame!”) that they’ll send the insufferably pretentious, black-turtlenecked, clove-smoking teenager you used to be into a fit of appreciative finger-snapping.