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Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert at Lincoln Center Festival in Jean Genet's 'The Maids'

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Aug 06, 2014 04:25 PM EDT

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert are starring in a new adaptation of Jean Genet's psychosexual drama The Maids, imported from the Sydney Theatre Company and opening tonight through August 16.

In most productions of The Maids, the murderous sisters are younger than "Madame," their mistress. But in the new staging, with a new English translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton and directed by Andrews, seasoned stage and film actresses Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert plays Genet's fictionalized versions of the real-life Papin sisters, who in 1933 famously and gruesomely murdered their mistress and her daughter, while 23-year-old Elizabeth Debicki (Baz Lurhmann's "The Great Gatsby") plays a younger "Madame."

In an interview with The New York Times Huppert said of this reversal, "It's a brilliant idea. It's never been done before. It makes it even more cruel. Madame has the power of youth."

Added Blanchett, "It brings death to the table much more acutely. She says, 'You're still young,' the way only a 23-year-old can speak to an older woman. It ramps up the sense of desperation and rage and longing and loss."

The Maids is a brilliant but problematic and twisted work that lends itself to varied interpretations. A recent Sonnet Repertory Theatre production, for example, set the story in postwar New Orleans and presented the maids as young black women serving a self-satisfied if not entirely unsympathetic white Madame, stirring our consciousness of race as well as class.

Other productions have used gender-reversed casting.

Glenda Jackson, Susannah York and Vivien Merchant starred in a Greenwich Theatre production in 1973 that was captured on film and released in 1975, directed by Christopher Miles.

"It's wonderful to work with Benedict and Andrew's [new] adaptation," said Blanchett. "They've really gone for the degraded, baroque side of the language as well as the banal, prosaic side of the language. Lots of words I wouldn't say in front of my grandmother. But lots of grandmothers came to the play and loved it."

New York City's grandmothers get their chance beginning today. For tickets visit the Lincoln Center show page.

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TagsJean Genet, The Maids, Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Sonnet Repertory Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Off-Broadway, Lincoln Center, Lincoln Center Festival

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