Saturday, March 01, 2008

opening-weekend review of *The Clean House*

at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble through March 15

Sarah Ruhl's *The Clean House* is about messiness (both literal and emotional) and about living fully and living in denial. Full of jokes about death and sad ruminations about human foolishness, it's a play stocked with dreamy/quirky/absurd situations. It's a play that lurches from silliness to the sublime and back again, and it often requires exaggeration, hysteria and surrealism in its performers.

It's too bad, then, that the cleanup crew of director Karen Kalensky's cast in the current Interplayers production (through March 15) misses quite a few spots. While the actors frequently aren't up to Ruhl's subtle tonal changes, however, they do manage to accumulate several polished sequences along the way.

At one juncture in Act Two, for example, Kalensky's actors collectively create the kind of absurdist, funny/sad hysteria that Ruhl's script expects. Charles (Gary Pierce) strips down to his bathing trunks, chasing after the happiness that his mistress represents. Selena Schopfer (as Charles' proper physician-wife, Lane, forever weariug a white lab coat in her gleaming white-on-white home) crumples onto a sofa, sobbing over her straying husband. A Portuguese woman in black (Silvia Lazo as Matilde, Lane's non-cleaning cleaning woman) paces around, trying to coin the perfect joke. And Lane's sister Virginia (Anne Selcoe) charges around the living room, wielding a vacuum cleaner aimed at the heart of all the dirt and grime that has accumulated in her sister's living room and in both their personalities. Sequences like this -- full of frantic movement, both funny and sad, with characters reacting seriously to others' absurdities and while some make fun of others' misfortunes -- live up to the script's promise.

Too bad the energy/absurdity meter is running so low for so much of this show. In a serio-comic show with surreal sequences (Matilde walks into Lane's dreams, Matilde's dead parents somehow merge with Lane's husband and his mistress), actors need to plunge into the freakiness with heads held high. As the mistress, Jackie Davis shows the way with head held high during a couple of key moments. Lying down like a patient etherized upon a table -- and with Pierce methodically, lovingly "sewing up" the woman he loves after an operation -- Davis rises in mid-operation to recount the course of true love. It's a bizarre episode, but played with dignity and for the high stakes that it demands. Similarly, the entire cast endows the evening's concluding death with signs that are both dignified and absurd.

Yet for too much of the evening, there's the sense that Ruhl's delicate poem is being recited haltingly, unevenly. Often I found myself silently urging actresses just to go for it -- play the scene to the fullest, not by treating extreme situations with calm seriousness, but with the kind of ranting hysteria they demand. Lane confronting the absurdity of a cleaning woman who won't clean; Virginia extolling Charles's charisma even as she finds herself fondling his dirty underwear; Matilde portraying her parents' goofiness in the context of their deaths -- episodes as exaggerated as these could do with more in way of exaggerated acting.

In Tony Kushner's *Angels in America,* the dead speak to the living and prophets explode through the ceiling -- and two brief but comic Alaska episodes in Ruhl's play feel almost like homages. I bring up the parallel because in *Angels,* characters are playing for high stakes, laughing and crying simultaneously over the dual plagues of AIDS and homophobia. Ruhl's characters confront adultery, emotional repression, disease and mortality, agoraphobia, regret. And they cast off the shackles and learn how to laugh -- and then willingly put on the shackles again, if only because we're all chained to our mortality. The difference between the accomplished TV and stage performances of *Angels* that I've seen and the performances in the Interplayers *Clean House* is the difference between playing hysterically because the circumstances are themselves hysterical and playing a scene in a restrained manner so as to point out the distinction between the restrained acting and the highly charged emotions. The first is event-centered; the second is actor-centered. Sometimes you've just gotta scream, you know?
The people in our dreams act in histrionic, high-stakes ways, and Ruhl's play is like a dream. Or should be.

Gesticulating with her gangly arms and wiggling her butt while needlessly dusting an already-been-dusted lamp, Lazo occasionally catches Matilda's free spirit. An opening joke fell flat, probably because it's told in Portuguese (though other, later jokes, because they were told more demonstratively, did manage to cross the language barrier and bounce right into the land of humor). Lazo overdoes the quizzical, scrunched-face bit when confronted with others' strange behaviors, but she excels at floppy-limbed intrusions into others' emotional crises, butting in with "Do you wanna hear a joke?" just when people are taking themselves most seriously.

Kalensky directs effectively, moving Selcoe around the stage's perimeter as Schopfer tails after her in a sisterly squabble, and allowing Selcoe's clean-freak Virginia to revel by letting go of her cleanliness obsession in a brief outburst.

"If I don't laugh for a week, I feel dirty," says Matilde. We all have a lot of crap encrusted around our souls. We should clean them out. We should ignore the voice mail's blinking light, ignore the looming specter of our mortality. What we should do is, we should tell more jokes. The Interplayers version of *The Clean House* doesn't deliver all of Ruhl's humor and pathos, but it gets some of the punch lines right.

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