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By serving us, Hilda will be given the opportunity to spend time with people who are very socially conscious. Yes, we have a maid, like everyone, but we always remember to treat her well to speak to her as an equal. Hilda wasn't born to serve any more than I was.
--- Mrs. Lemarchand to Frank, the husband who's initially hesitant about his wife's accepting the job being offered. This typifies her repeated avowals of her liberalism and statements clearly to the contrary, as when she follows up the above with "Haven't you noticed, Frank, that servants are predisposed to lying and cheating? They're as manipulative as children and just as tireless in their deceptions."

Ellen Karas as Mrs. Lemarchand
Ellen Karas as Mrs. Lemarchand
(Photo:Carol Pratt )
One of the novels Marie Ndiaye began writing when she was twelve years old and publishing at seventeen consists of a hundred pages, all in one sentence. With Hilda she has created a new type of solo or monologue play. Except for occasional interchanges with two other characters, it is, like that single sentence novel, uniquely structured, essentially a monologue in six scenes.

Currently at 59E59 as part of the Act French season at this and other venues throughout the city, Hilda is a strangely gripping mix of absurdist socio-political satire and psychological thriller, with ties to Beckett and Genet (especially the latter's The Maids, which is told from the viewpoint of two servants whose rage at their servitude becomes murderous). The title character is never seen, except through the picture of her evoked by Mrs. Lemarchand (Ellen Karas who has played this role during its San Francisco run), the woman who, after hiring Hilda as maid and nanny, dominates her to the point of completely obliterating her personality.

Mrs. Lemarchand, as played by Karas, is well-groomed and attractive in a fairly ordinary way but it takes just a few minutes to realize that this is not your average upper class housewife. This woman is an appalling monster, a case study in self-delusion, sexual confusion and a diabolical need to dominate and enslave someone weaker than herself. The words streaming from her, especially her repeated references to herself as a liberal, are oxymoronic when considered within the context of her compulsive and repulsive despotism.

This sort of twisted psyche drama has universal appeal, as do its underlying and on the surface themes which include false liberalism, the many forms of slavery (from the enslavement experienced by the playwright's African ancestors to the unequal distribution of wealth that sets up a troublesome master-servant dynamic between people of means and the less fortunate). Erica Rundle's Americanization of the script with its references to green cards, trips to New York and Florida thus seems unnecessary, especially since you somehow think of the Karas' character as Madame Lemarchand rather than Mrs. Lemarchand. Whatever her nationality, she is one of the scariest characters to cross a stage in a while and, as portrayed by Karas, her descent into madness is often riveting to watch.

Karas is also an amazing trouper. On the night I saw Hilda, she soldiered through Mrs. Lemarchand's emotional roller coaster performance with a body mike necessitated by an unexpected problem with her voice. It is a performance that takes her from tense, tightly wound and obviously more than a little off-center (as evident from the long list of previous servants and the importance she attaches to names, Hilda being one to which she is strongly attracted) to out of control maniac.

Of the play's two other characters, Frank (Michael Earle), Hilda's handyman husband and her younger sister Corinne (Brandy Burre), the husband figures most importantly. His presence in most of the scenes dispel the sense of watching a one-person monologue; and, with mostly facial expressions and body language, Earle's Frank contributes an important element to the class division that enables the rich Mrs. Lemarchand to virtually buy Hilda. The first scene finds Frank at the door expecting to do some work around the house only to find Mrs. Lemarchand bargaining with him to allow his wife, currently a stay-at-home mom, to become her nanny and maid. The interchange is less a case of bargaining than a seduction, with the need for money the siren song persuading him to agree to Hilda's employment. His caving in not just to having his wife take the job without being consulted, but without so much as a day's delay, is step one in his losing his wife to this domestic Svengali.

Brandy Burre's Corinne, who appears only briefly towards the end, is also important as she's the only one to stand up to Mrs. Lemarchand yet, there's a subtext to her behavior that makes her anything but a heroine. Replacing her sister is not an act of family solidarity but typifies the self-serving compromises made by people in today's society.

The author originally wrote Hilda as a radio play and has been quoted as being surprised at the interest in it as a stage work, but with Carey Perloff at the helm, the text fits the stage format and moves along as a well-paced ninety-minute play. Donald Eastman's antiseptic set effectively establishes the chilling atmosphere. The steep, rail-less stairway that dominates the otherwise almost bare stage lends a sense of distance and grandeur to Mrs. Lemarchand's entrances and exits -- like a queen descending to the peasant level and returning to her castle. While I liked the overall spareness of the set, it might have been nice to have some sort of photo image of the otherwise invisible Hilda and her children. A small quibble about a play and production that's likely to linger in the memory.

Playwright: Marie Ndiaye
Directed by Carey Perloff
English translation by Erika Rundle
Cast: Ellen Karas, Michael Earle and Brandy Burre
Set Design: Donald Eastman
Costume Design:David F. Draper
Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler
Sound Design: Cliff Caruthers
Original Music: David Lang
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission.
American Conservatory Theater and Studio Theater Productions, 59E59 Theater A, 212-279-4200,
From 11/11/05 to 12/11/05; opening 11/15/05.
Tuesday at 7:00 PM; Wednesday - Friday at 8:00 PM; Saturday at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM; Sunday at 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM.
Tickets: $45.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 12th press performance
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