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'The Maids' review: Movie stars get big screen treatment onstage

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a scene

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a scene from the Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Maids by Jean Genet presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2014 at New York City Center on Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: Stephanie Berger

When a theater director casts a movie star -- in this case two -- we suspect box-office motives. But as soon as we glimpse the set design for Lincoln Center Festival's presentation of Jean Genet's "The Maids," we can guess why Benedict Andrews chose Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert for the title roles.

A projection screen of cineplex proportions dominates the space above designer Alice Babidge's linear representation of a celebrity's posh apartment. Indeed, this Sydney Theatre Company import is as cinematic as any live theater this critic has ever witnessed.

Images from embedded surveillance lenses and video cameras visible on the wings are projected from start to fade-to-black finish of this profane psychological drama.

Stills alternate with tight shots of Oscar winner Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine") and César winner Huppert ("La Ceremonie") as the tale of unlikely sisters who role-play vicious scenarios involving their employer unfolds with scatologically sexual jolts. Picture a close-up of Blanchett after Huppert has pushed her face into the toilet and you'll get the sadomasochistic nature of their sibling ribaldry. The roving videographer seems to have as dirty a mind as either Claire (Blanchett) or Solange (Huppert). When he's not focusing our attention on their shoes, he enlists us as voyeurs peering up their skirts -- lingerie scenes aside.

Genet shocked the bourgeoisie with "The Maids" in 1947. This English translation by Andrews and Sydney artistic director Andrew Upton faithfully reflects the author's intent. You'll hear most of the words George Carlin once said -- before HBO -- you can't say on TV.

At first, you might mistake Blanchett for "Madame" -- the superstar on whom they wait hand and spike-heeled foot. But she's role-playing, cavorting across the room in an ill-fitting red gown. As we later discover, Madame (played with regal disregard for courtesy by Elizabeth Debicki) is statuesque. A makeup vanity is the centerpiece from which Lady Macbeth-ish soliloquys are delivered. The sisters' grotesque burlesques enact an obsessively imagined denouement: milady's murder. Her wardrobe -- more dresses than you'd find at Macy's but way more glamorous -- lines the back wall. Only the flowers are more bounteous than her gowns.

A subplot involves private letters forwarded to cops, exiling Madame's boyfriend to prison. Should their source be discovered, the sisters are doomed, giving them motive to kill. But mostly they're just sick of subservience. Blanchett and Huppert expose themselves far more emotionally than physically, evoking a symbiotic madness. But the two make implausible sisters. One speaks in cultured English (Blanchett is Australian) and the other with a French accent.

Besides voyeurism, video designer Sean Bacon focuses unforgivingly on ravaged faces. While certain screen moments are riveting -- monologues don't get this up close and personal onstage -- others seem banal and distracting. Still, simultaneous video of live performances has enhanced other experiences, notably rock concerts. Why not theater?


WHAT "The Maids"

WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, New York City Center, 131 W 55th St. Ends Aug. 16.

TICKETS $35-$165 (limited availability, call for cancellations), 212-581-1212,

BOTTOM LINE Beware of the hired help.

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