The title of Jean Genet's The Maids, a cult-favorite play on class warfare, suggests that maybe the hired help comes out on top. Huh-uh. Solange and Claire, the domestics, never get around to laying hands on the employer they despise and want to kill. That's what gives this 1947 play its twist. It's based on the case of sisters Christine and Lea Papin, who viciously murdered their well-to-do madame and her daughter at Le Mans, France, 14 years before.
The victims had been relieved of their eyes while still alive. Good thing. That way, they couldn't bear witness to the impending decimation of their skulls.
Ion Theatre Company's good Punks, written by Ion executive artistic director Claudio Raygoza and based on the Genet work, takes the same tack--two figures find themselves engaged in a series of cat-and-mouse encounters under the eye of a mysterious, malevolent stranger. The sex-charged gamesmanship is amusing at first, but it soon comes to define the principals and their circumstantial hopelessness. Like Solange and Claire, Jesus (Markuz Rodriguez) and Cris (Steven Lone) will fade into class obscurity, embittered victims of self-loathing and sexual fear.
The men's squalid New York apartment is worlds removed from the maids' uppy Paris digs, and it's also where director Glenn Paris shows us how thoroughly he comprehends Genet's and Raygoza's intents. The entrances and exits are made from a staircase window, the kind of symbolism Genet would appreciate and a perfect point of departure from his play. There's more where that came from, as candles are extinguished, frontal nudity trots out and the characters speak over each other in recounting their lives--unconnected items that loom large in the context of the show.
The gender switches touch Genet's madame, as well. Here, she's morphed into a male lounge lizard named Papin, played by the excellent Robin Christ. That's where Raygoza's ideas become slightly labored and adversely affect the production values. Papin might have been better off as a seedy cop or politician, someone whose station comports better with Genet's original character.
This world premiere will make more sense if you know The Maids and the story of the Papin whack-jobs. Raygoza has thought through his variations nicely; Paris melds his direction with Raygoza's mindset; and the actorial chemistry is there. The show is adapted from a piece to which the mainstream probably can't relate, but it's a forthright look at class distinction and the ethnic and economic boundaries it exploits.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Nov. 16. Punks runs through Dec. 16 at The Lab, Academy of Performing Arts, 4580-B Alvarado Canyon Road, Mission Valley. $10-$25.50. 619-374-6894 or www.iontheatre.com.
This one works
Filmmaker John Waters gets lots of mileage out of his Baltimore roots. His movie Cry-Baby is set there, even though the action could take place anywhere in mid-'50s America. And the film's teen-angst story is pretty formulaic, Baltimore or not--greaser Wade (Cry-Baby) Walker incurs the wrath of a well-scrubbed element in town, only to come out clean on the other side with the girl of his dreams.
That doesn't mean Cry-Baby won't read in three dimensions. And as currently mounted at La Jolla Playhouse, it sure does. The Mark O'Donnell-Thomas Meehan book has its self-indulgent side, but you can say that about every musical in the universe, including the good ones. And amid song titles like 'The Anti-Polio Picnic' and 'I Did Something Wrong--Once,' you get the idea. This cast outsmarts the corny stuff by giving into it, and Mark Brokaw's direction and Rob Ashford's choreography take it from there. Damned brassy fare for a musical.
Cry-Baby runs through Dec. 16 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. $44-$72. 858-550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org.