A Swathe of Color and Chaos: The Clean House

Sarah Ruhl has written a wonderful play, and Mixed Blood Theater does it justice, says Jaime Kleiman. It's on through November 18.

clean house

In Sarah Ruhl’s ingenious play, The Clean House, Matilde, a Brazilian cleaning woman who recently moved to America, is obsessed with finding the perfect joke. As it happens, all the other women in the play are obsessed with cleanliness, which turns out to be perfect comic fodder for an evening of unexpected theatricality, hilarity, and beauty.

A post-modern playwright with an absurdist sensibility, Ruhl has crafted a brilliant play about two polar opposite sisters—one’s a disconnected, emotionally cold doctor, the other’s a lonely housewife. The fourth woman in this equation is an outsider dying of breast cancer. Her last wish? To die laughing. There are certainly worse ways to go.

The play centers around Matilde (the effervescent Lisa Rafaela Clair, who learned Portuguese for the role), who’s in mourning for her recently deceased parents. As the emotional heart of the play, Clair expertly balances her character’s quest for meaning with mordant optimism. The second half of the play takes a darker turn, as scenic designer Joe Stanley’s set is slowly transformed from a stark white, barren room into a swath of color and chaos. (The actors have a wonderful time making the doctor’s house as untidy as possible.) There’s more to it than this, but elaborating would spoil the plot. The Clean House is a like a present swaddled in layers of wrapping paper. Each sheet reveals another surprise, another joke, another unexpectedly frank conversation. Simply put, director Stan Wojewodski, Jr., has staged a coup. This is the best—and funniest—production I’ve seen all year.

Every actor is a standout. Hollis Resnik as Lane, the doctor, is lovely and has exceptional comic timing. Karen Landry, as Lane’s forlorn sister, Virginia, is a goofy and morbid foil. She is a desperate housewife on the throes—to borrow from Tony Kushner—of revelation. Stephen Yoakam and Olivia Lawrence round out the cast in dual roles as Matilde’s parents and later, as Lane’s husband and his newly found soul mate. It’s impossible to imagine better casting.

The Clean House is, at its core, a unique exploration of the idea that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” This platitude is meditated upon and gently prodded, as are other societal meanings of cleanliness, and the spiritual and emotional places that cleaning and cleansing occupy in our culture. Matilde, of course, does not like to clean, which isn’t all that surprising, considering there’s nothing funny about folding a stranger’s underwear and learning the secrets hiding in plain sight.

Eventually, Matilde does indeed discover the perfect joke, but ultimately, as with life, the joke’s on us. We never find out what it is. Ruhl leaves us with our own splendid messes, literal and figurative, to clean up, dust under the rug, or rejoice in. She suggests we opt for the latter.

The Clean House runs through Nov. 18 at Mixed Blood, 1501 S. 4th St., Minneapolis. Tickets: 612.338.6131.