Review | The Clean House: clean, but not clean-cut

Theatre Unbound, performing at the Gremlin, thru Nov 18

Theatre Unbound’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House (Theatre Unbound,performing at the Gremlin Theater until November 18) is only one of at least ten productions of this play in the country over the next four months. Some reasons why this play is well-loved, aside from its Pulitzer credentials: It’s quirky, absurd, and poker-facedly funny.

The Clean House takes place in an all-white living room. The play opens with Matilde (played by Jasmine Porter who is very good at deadpan delivery) telling us a joke in Portuguese–untranslated. Matilde is a 27-year-old Brazilian woman who has been hired to be a live-in maid in the house of Lane (Lynda J. Dahl), a confident and successful doctor. The correct Brazilian pronunciation of “Matilde” is “Ma-chil-gee”, but as usual, the Americans can’t handle it, calling her “Matilda” (or some hilariously ignorant variations spun by Lane). Matilde doesn’t like cleaning–she’s more preoccupied with trying to think up the perfect joke. “A good joke cleans your insides out.”

But there’s Lane’s sister, Virginia (Ellen Apel), who loves to clean–for the sake of “progress”–and scorns people like Lane who give up “the privilege of cleaning their own houses”. Virginia easily persuades Matilde to let her clean Lane’s house.

In Lane’s home, a revelation is made about a new flame between Lane’s surgeon husband, Charles (Craig Turino) and his patient, Ana (Laura Wiebers). The love between them is quite preposterous, even by our 21st-century Hollywood-influenced standards: it happens instantly; it prompts Charles to go to Alaska in search of a cancer-curing tree; it is deemed morally innocent according to Jewish law, even though none of them are Jewish.

It is among extremities such as these that Ruhl asks us to consider what limits we can and cannot exceed. Take Matilde’s joke told in Portuguese, for example. It loses its humor in translation. The language barrier, then, seems impossible to overcome. However, there’s some hope when Matilde and Ana, who is Argentinean, converse and laugh together in a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish. The beauty of this play exists at the verge of those limits.

TU’s production also, interestingly, punctuates moments with a narrative voice-over, such as: “Lane and Virginia experience a primal moment during which they are seven and nine years old.” This choice of director Carolyn Levy’s is a helpful reminder that we don’t need to take the world of this play too seriously. Example: did you know you could literally die laughing? Well, in the world that Ruhl has created, you can.

What also lends The Clean House its particular subconscious charm is that it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. (Maybe that’s partly why Theatre Unbound, whose tagline is “The Women’s Theatre”, chose to present this?) The women in the play, all four of them, rarely talk about men–they’re talking about their aspirations, their motivations, and how they see themselves in the world. We actually enter the individual emotional psyches of these women, and that is a big part of what makes this play so enjoyable.

Over the course of the play, some characters get messy (kudos to Apel for performing a wonderful operatic mess), and The Clean House is not so clean in the end. Yes, the play makes us recognize that life is messy; however, in TU’s production, the messiness of life seems conflated with the “messiness” of the play itself. The artists of TU do not appear to have surmounted the play’s complexity: the actors deliver their rich monologues convincingly—however, without much supporting context around them to make the production a living and thinking piece of theatre. Nevertheless, it is a commendable attempt at presenting this play which surely deserves an audience.

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