Wednesday, 24 May 2006

The Clean House, MTC, May 24, 2006

The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl 
Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, May 24 until July 8, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 24, 2006

The Clean House by American playwright, Sarah Ruhl, is a cheerful comedy tinged with melancholy. It has a very American, almost a soap opera, style.

The central characters are Lane (Wendy Hughes) and her husband, Charles, (Pip Miller) two upmarket surgeons. Lane has a depressed Brazilian maid, Matilde (Daniela Farinacci) and a compulsive obsessive sister, Virginia (Deidre Rubenstein).

Charles’ South American patient, Ana, (Julia Blake) is dying with cancer as well as having an affair with Charles. Sounds like Days of Our Lives, doesn’t it?

The performances are polished and Kate Cherry’s direction is stylish. This is definitely a quirky comedy but it has little substance. Comparisons with Marquez’s Magic Realism are exaggerated. The collisions of past and present, imagination and reality are common in theatrical conventions.

Lane employs Matilde to clean her house. Cleaning depresses Matilde, a young woman born to parents who were “the funniest couple in Brazil.” Matilde’s goal is to create the funniest joke in the world and to become a comedienne. The irony is that she tells all her jokes in Portugese and they are untranslatable.

The comedy in The Clean House revolves around dirt and the chaos of ordinary relationships. Grief and love, obsession and habit are the foundations on which Ruhl constructs her humour.

Despite the wealth of talent on the stage, the script is amusing but ultimately unsatisfying, leaving one with a sense of having seen a piece of fluff.

Christina Smith’s all white, contemporary set design allows Cherry to explore scenes imaginatively, placing them behind scrims, blinds, on upper levels and in deep background. Lighting by Jon Buswell, provides atmosphere and depth to the design.

Farinacci manages the Brazilian accent well and rise to the challenge of making foreign language jokes seem funny. A gravel-voiced Hughes plays the abrasive Lane with an edge of anxiety and panic and gives the character a journey to compassion and peace by the finale.

Rubenstein, as Virginia, provides much of the comedy with her motherly fussing and obsessive cleaning of Lane’s house.  Miller finds some layers and comedy in the rather underwritten character of Charles and Blake is charming and alluring as the beautiful South American patient who literally charms the pants off Charles.

The second act certainly raises the emotional stakes in this light comedy and perhaps it gently prompts audiences to consider their personal lives. It is certainly not a thesis on relationships.

By Kate Herbert

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