The Maids & The Habibi Kings
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Some plays break the fourth wall, that imaginary barrier that separates the actors from the audience. In Red Bull's intriguing production of Jean Genet's The Maids, director Jesse Berger places the solid obstacle right in front of us, enclosing his actors in a four-walled chamber room that patrons peek into from cut-out sections. It's an interesting move for a play where two of the characters are essentially putting on performances for each other.
The French playwright's 1947 drama of sadomasochistic role play was inspired by a real-life 1930s story of two sisters, working as domestics, who murdered their employer and his daughter. Genet's fiction involves sisters Solange (Ana Reeder) and Claire (Jeanine Serralles), who, whenever the lady of the house is away, go into their ritualistic act of playing out her murder. One takes on the role of the woman who they claim loves them as she loves her bidet as they let off steam and express their hidden emotions in violent and erotic fantasies.
Such private moments are granted as much privacy as the theatre can allow, with set designer Dane Laffrey letting the games ensue within an elegantly red and white furnished boudoir. Audience members seated at four sides voyeuristically watch through cut-out portions of the walls.
The physically angular and steely-cold Serralles makes a feast out the text's heightened language (translation by Bernard Frechtman), showing how Claire relishes the opportunity to escape the drudgery of her life by indulging in what she sees as the decadence of the madam's world. Reeder gives an energetic surface performance, but she misses the subtleties of her colleague.
J. Smith-Cameron makes a brief appearance as the demanding lady of the house, looking like a stunning Hollywood goddess in designer Sara Jean Tosetti's glimmering, form-fitting gown.
While the 90-minute adventure hums along swiftly, there is a noticeable lack of danger and thrills in the proceedings. Perhaps it's the separation of audience and actors that's the culprit. Some like to watch but sometimes it helps to feel more intimately involved.
Photo of Jeanine Serralles and Ana Reeder by Carol Rosegg.
While I'm always up for a night out when it means enjoying the unpredictable cabaret antics of Michael Garin and Mardie Millit, I really didn't know what to predict when Garin asked me to check out a band the two of them perform with, The Habibi Kings.
Habibi, he tells me, translates in Arabic to "baby," as in "What's up, baby?" and the kings play a cross-section of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean genres and styles, recalling a golden age from the 1940s to the late 70s when Manhattan's lower 8th Avenue was lined Arab, Israeli, Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Iranian restaurants and music clubs.
"Our belief is that if musicians ruled the world, there would be no more war," says Garin. "Nothing else would get done either, of course. The whole world would sleep till noon, watch TV till 8pm and then go to work. All in all, not a bad schedule."
The Habibi Kings play a regular Wednesday night gig at Aza; a cozy, funky neighborhood joint on 3rd and 93rd with good food and free music nightly. (Michael and Mardie partake in their usual cabaret zaniness on Thursday nights.) In this ethnically diverse city it's no surprise they've attracted a regular crowd that enthusiastically shouts out their love for this kind of music.
Garin takes his usual spot at piano. Nick Mandoukos (who was out the night I dropped by) sings and plays electric oud, guitar and bouzouki. Samir Shukry, who plays electric violin and electric oud, took the bulk of the lead vocals that night and percussionist Hassan Bakar pounded on the dumbek. In between mingling and hobnobbing, Mardie, their Habibi Queen, partook in backup vocals.
Not being familiar at all with this kind of music, except as background for dinner conversations, I got hooked on their lively and charismatic style right away and had a great time hearing the blends of traditional rhythms with contemporary sounds. Those in the know would recognize selections made famous by Oum Kalthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Amr Diab and Ishay Levi, and wouldn't be surprised to hear Samir himself singing "Rona," a big hit in Israel he wrote for his daughter.
My own ears perked up when the fellows snuck in a few licks out of Mozart, "The Twist," the theme from Love Story and some bits from The Godfather, and they were kind enough to toss this showtune lover some Sondheim, with Millit singing a lovely rendition of "Sorry-Grateful" in the Habibi Kings' style.
"Our goal is to toss anything and everything into the musical mix," says Garin. "And why? Because it's fun and it makes people happy."
Surveying the crowd at Aza, I saw a lot of happy faces.
Photo: Michael Garin and Samir Shukry.
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Posted on March 18, 2012 - by
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About the Author:After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.