The Clean House

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

30/03/2007 - 21/04/2007

Production Details

by Sarah Ruhl
directed by Jef Hall-Flavin

designer: Peter King

Lane is a doctor who can’t stand to clean. “I did not go to Medical School to clean my own house.”

Unfortunately for the busy doctor, her Brazilian cleaning lady Matilde’s attitude towards dirt is, “If the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling.” In fact, cleaning makes her sad. In an effort to make her already tidy, logical life entirely spotless, Lane sends the depressed Matilde to a psychiatrist. Prozac isn’t the answer but Lane’s sister Virginia, obsessed with cleanliness, secretly takes over the cleaning lady’s job, leaving Matilde time to craft the perfect joke.

Anna Henare
Hilary Norris
Jude Gibson
Jen Wolfe
Phil Darkins

Theatre ,

Exhilarating blend of fantasy and reality

Review by Terry MacTavish 07th Apr 2007

Wahoo! Cries of triumph (and gasps of relief) at the successful lift-off of the Fortune’s 2007 season. After the ghastly grounding of 6 Dance Lessons in 6 Weeks with great loss of revenue and confidence, this sparkling production of The Clean House is soaring high. Its flights of fancy mingle with a poignant realism to provide an entertainment that is both funny and mind-expanding.

Uptight doctor Lane ("I didn’t go to medical school to clean my own house") and her housebound sister Virginia ("If I died anytime during the day no one would have to clean my kitchen") have their relationship tested through the failings of Lane’s Brazilian maid Matilda ("If the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling"). Cleaning actually depresses Matilda, who happens to be a stand-up comic, so it is lucky for her that Virginia has been dying to get her rubber-gloved hands onto Lane’s mess.

By a secret pact, Virginia happily takes over the housekeeping, freeing Matilda to get on with her perpetual search for the perfect joke. However, their discovery of enticing foreign underwear in Lane’s laundry basket is the beginning of the revelation that Lane’s surgeon husband is having an affair with an Argentinian mastectomy patient called Ana, an older woman who is yet full of the zest for life so conspicuously lacking in Lane.

Many writers – Elizabeth Barrett-Browning in Aurora Leigh comes to mind – have noted that women who love the same man frequently have more in common with each other than with him. Lane’s husband Charles appears only in the second half and is sensibly removed from the action (on a quixotic quest to find a cure for Ana) so the women can get on with their own complex relationships. They do this so well that his reappearance at the end seems somewhat unnecessary, though it does provide a wonderfully bizarre closing tableau.

By this point anyway we have realised we are way beyond mere realism. Cleaning the house has become a metaphor for cleanliness of the soul, and playwright Ruhl has taken whimsy to a higher level than is often encountered. Not for nothing is she the recipient of a "genius grant" worth some half a million… This is an ordinary, even clichéd story told in an extraordinary way and set in a "metaphysical Connecticut".

Sarah Ruhl’s confident yet puckish referencing of many Brechtian alienation devices recalls such greats as Caryl Churchill and Paula Vogel. Director Jef Hall-Flavin lustily embraces every opportunity offered: droll projected subtitles ("Virginia and Lane experience a primal moment in which they are 7 and 9 years old"); challenging chats direct to the audience (yes, there’s always a patron who can’t resist replying); filmic rewinds and balletic mime; transformations and solemn ritual interspersed with moments of pure farce. The humour combined with the distancing effect of surrealism means The Clean House is warm-hearted without being cloying.

The play begins with Matilda expounding a long joke in Portuguese. Anna Henare is simply gorgeous as Matilda, and it doesn’t matter that no one understands; the audience rocks with laughter as her hips sway to express some saucy sexual punch-line. She gives a completely consistent performance, making credible and touching the orphaned outsider who liberates her employers from their stale routines.

The role of neurotic Virginia, in love with dust but secretly drooling over her brother-in-law’s underpants, seems made for Hilary Norris. Norris is unexcelled in the art of repressed hysteria suddenly exploding into manic action, and her trashing of Lane’s impeccable apartment in a moment of epiphany is sublime.

Jude Gibson complements Norris effectively as the chilly Lane, on her own journey to a more compassionate self. The two sisters combine in vicious repartee and lovely screwball comedy. Rarely have mid-life crises been so hilarious.

Jen Wolfe and Phil Darkins as soul-mates Ana and Charles round out the cast convincingly, though playing "impossibly charismatic" tests any actor. They recreate in stylised form the not unfamiliar love story of exotic life-loving South American transforming cold career-driven North American. Apple-picking becomes the symbol of their new life together.

The lovely, calm, zen-like set all in white and beige becomes increasingly cluttered and messy as everything that is repressed bursts out across the room. Gauzy curtains permit a misty appearance of figments of the characters’ imaginations (Matilda’s comedian parents dancing a tango; Lane’s husband trekking through Alaskan snows), and designer Peter King provides for a spectacular emergence of Ana’s colourful balcony, which forms a visible contrast with the muted world below. Soaring religious music accompanies the opening of one huge white cupboard to reveal towering shelves neatly stacked with an endless supply of household cleaning materials.

This blending of fantasy and solid reality in every aspect of the production is skilfully handled by Hall-Flavin and faithfully interpreted by the cast and production team, providing a series of magical little surprises which make for exhilarating theatre.

The Clean House actually saw Ruhl nominated for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, which sounds pretty heavy, but earthbound it is definitely not. Join a Fortune flight in search of the perfect joke, which Matilda says is somewhere between an angel and a fart. But beware – the search for the perfect joke is fraught with danger. You could, as Matilda’s mother did, die laughing.
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