Review:’Clean House’ at Contra Costa Civic Theatre (****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

When Matilde, the Brazilian “maid,” (the charming Laura Espino) starts the play by telling an elaborate and sexual joke to the audience — entirely in Portuguese, but without subtitles — we know we are in for a wild ride. She loves the joke herself and repeats several obscene gestures and splits her sides laughing. It’s hard to resist joining in her laughter, even though we don’t understand a word of what she’s saying.

Perhaps that’s what Sarah Ruhl’s play is all about: a side-splitting joke told by a marvelous woman, who seems to be a maid in a rich doctor’s house. Matilde, the “maid,” embodies many mysteries of female power, love, and just pure fun. It’s all about jokes and dust, clean and dirty, sex and fun, joy and death. Simple?

Well, not so simple — but definitely absurd, confusing, and colorful. Sarah Ruhl’s 2005 play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize — even before she won the MacArthur “Genius” Grant. She has filled New York and local stages with plays about myth, womanhood, and love since then. But this one embodies many crucial parts of her wonderful puzzle.

Matilde works for Lane (a sprightly Suzie Shepard), a controlling M.D. who presides over the white and spotless modern house, starkly designed to reflect her personality by Kuo-Hao Lo. Ruhl describes it: “PLACE: A metaphysical Connecticut. Or, a house that is not far from the city and not far from the sea.” Lane wants a maid to clean her house, but Matilde needs to spend her time looking for the “perfect joke” — it’s a family tradition from Brazil. When she has to clean house instead of thinking up jokes, she gets depressed. Matilde is the perfect maid who won’t clean the house. Lane, the work-obsessed doctor says, “I did not go to medical school to clean my own house.”

That’s the crux of the play — those who are educated and elite are cold and aloof, while those who do the actual upkeep and maintenance seem to be warm and compassionate. Work versus play—couldn’t be clearer, right?

Well, not quite — you see, Lane’s sister Virginia (the irrepressible Shelley Lynn Johnson) comes in to pick up the slack. She’s a slightly older, more of a hippy hold-over, who is glad to do the cleaning for Matilde, behind her up-tight sister’s back. Virginia loves to clean, to serve others, to work behind the scenes to keep lives running smoothly. She doesn’t mind at all — she can only breathe when she cleans, and she loves a clean house. So, she does Matilde’s job, so Matilde can devote herself to humor.

Oh, and don’t forget the magical realism, where we see Matilde’s mother and father — who died under hilarious circumstances — dancing together, as played by a joyful Mark Manske and Annette Amelia Oliveira. They make an ideal dream couple, exemplifying a higher form of love.

So, there you have three off the charts women: the controlling doctor, the out of control maid, and the savior sister. Hmmm…..sounds quite religious, already, to me. But the play roars on, full of jokes and wit, and wise insights about health and life and topsy-turvy role playing — but where’s the love? Well, Lane’s husband, Charles (a passionate Manske), who is a surgeon, finds his love in his office and on the operating table. And who is it? It’s Ana (an animated Oliveira) in her bright red dress, who plays an older Latina whom Charles is treating for cancer. Charles falls hard for the witty Ana, who embodies a major force of life. Later he runs off to Alaska to seek the bark of a tree to cure her — effectively banishing him while the the women work do of life, together.

What brings these women together in a compassionate quartet—the Doctor, the Maid, the Sister, and the Latina Lover? Does it have anything to do with the oranges that fly from Ana’s house by the sea and magically fall into Lane’s living room? Objects and people embark on strange journeys in “The Clean House,” and the house, itself, goes through sudden and bizarre changes, turning order to creative disorder.

Lovers come and go, some real, some fantasies, in the supple direction by Erin Merritt. We have to stay alert to figure out who is coming on next, and are they real or a dream. The show is punctuated by new ideas and profound reflections on living and dying, hope and humor. As Matilde says, “Would anybody like to hear a joke?”

Listen closely and you may understand the profound jokes that bind these strong women together. They share a secret, and if we listen closely, we might hear Ana’s last request as humor envelops her in “The Clean House.”

“The Clean House” by Sarah Ruhl, plays at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre through March 6, 2012. 



“The Clean House,” by Sarah Ruhl, produced by the Contra Costa Civic Theatre. Director: Erin Merritt. Set Designer: Kuo-Hao Lo. Technical Director: Stewart Lyle. Dialect Coach: Livia DeMarchi. Costume Designer: Mackenzie Orvis. Light Designer: Courtney Johnson. Sound Designer: Michael Kelly. Music Designer: Maria Pia Allende. Artistic Director: Marilyn Langbehn.

Cast: Matilde: Laura Espino. Lane: Suzie Shepard. Virginia: Shelley Lynn Johnson. Charles/Matilde’s Father: Mark Manske. Ana/Matilde’s Mother: Annette Amelia Oliveira.


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