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The Clean House – Sarah Ruhl

March 28th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Again, the biggest thing about the play experience is seeing the play versus reading the play; which should be no surprise really, considering that is how plays are intended to be experienced. This really held up for me as I read Bleed Rail, as I didn’t think until after reading it, how Mickey had the set designed to be the slaughterhouse. That is, seeing that whole play take place inside a slaughterhouse with red-stained walls, etc, the ominous metallic and mechanical nature of it, that would loom depressingly–heavily, over the whole of the action on the stage.

This wasn’t the case at the Play House. Alas, Sarah Ruhl’s set was there in the splendor and excruciating detail of which I, as a young playwright, can only dream: the white interior and furnishings tastefully displayed; the balcony, etc. I hadn’t been in the Play House for two or three years so I forgot how it looked and, since that time, have been in so many odd places for plays that I was never really aware of the gross luxury of that theatre space. Of the evening, that was one of the things that most impressed upon me: the opulence of the stage and the theatre environs. I have been continuing to read a book on the History of the Theatre in what spare time I have, so I was very interested in the stage itself: I don’t know that it’s a proscenium stage, but it is set up to look that way–with the distribution of curtains around the sides and the low-hanging curtain across the top. The curtains worked to frame the space, but I don’t recall a physical arch. Alas, another example of my Sherlock Holmesian deductive reasoning failing–I look but fail to see,’ as Holmes would say. One thing that did stand out to me was the acoustics, which were not very good. I had to cast my mind about and remember if that is always a problem with theatres of this design, or just the Drury space. The acoustics required a very artificial manner in the speaking of the actors just in order for them to be heard. There was also that ‘theatre persona’ visible: the sort of swagger that stage actors have when they coyly address the audience as a ‘knowing’ confidant, but with that burstingly loud voice that one would never use in an aside. The Great Lake Theatre downtown suffers from the same problem. In there to see A Midsummer Night’s DreamA I was appalled at how terrible the sound was. To add Shakespeare to the mix only made things dreadful. The Drury was nowhere near as bad acoustically as the Palace, or whatever theatre that is in Playhouse Square. I was also interested in the depth of the stage. Even with The Clean House, the set was deep. I wondered how deep it could go. I thought of the great Italian stage designers who first brought perspective to the stage sets: deep perspective–mountain scenes in the background with little parts in motion to give the illusion of animals or carts or whatever moving along…

The visual elements of the space itself give way to the thing that struck me the most about The Clean House: namely, how all the elements of the play, in action, created multiple levels of meaning that existed at multiple times, to which the audience had access at any given moment. The layering occurs in both physical space and in cognitive space–in the physical activities occurring on stage, and in the requirement of the audience keeping track of storyline, plot, etc. For instance, meaning was created by what characters said, and what they did, of course, but it was also created through the objects that characters used: apples, ropes, trees, large dust mops; their memories or acts of imagination (Matilde seeing her parents) and through the use of text captioning, as well as the playful inclusion of different locales: Alaska and the oceanfront. So, while Virginia and Matilde talk at stage right, Charles enters at left in a snow suit, carrying the accoutrements of a polar explorer. At once there are different times present on stage and different locales–one can almost descend into a Bakhtinian analysis of all the dialectics and discourses of time and space in this play–and yet, the audience is perfectly, pleasantly, happy to take all of this into the mind and let it drift and bauble about. In fact, it is, I think, this play of time, space, and the many different ways of presenting it on stage that make The Clean House so successful and such a delight. The audience must work, and Ruhl keeps things (meaning) bouncing back and forth and one thing happening in one place inflects upon the other and Ruhl is not shy about stating it on stage–to being metatheatrical in her drawing attention to these intersections; perhaps the best being when Lane is imaging her husband and Ana together and Matilde walks in. In the good old fashioned theatre, we as the audience would see this, but expect that the characters on the stage would overlook it. Not so. Matilde flatly asks, ‘Who are they?’ and the audience, at least in the performance I attended, was unhinged with joy at that allowance by Ruhl. It would be as if everyone in Hamlet could see the Ghost and that ghost went about the play being put out all the time and everyone else, losing interest in his depression, just ignored him–or worse, got sick of his moaning altogether and told him to bugger off. (There’s a stout idea for a comedy.) There is something very childlike in the theatrics by Ruhl that allows for this release of joy. It is very like the play of children who just say, ‘let’s pretend this is Alaska,’ and suddenly, boom, it is and everyone will be cold in that area. That is what, I think, theatre should be and what she is accomplishing.

Not that Ruhl of course is alone in this–this metatheatre. Some might say that she is reaping the benefits of the Off Off Broadway groups from the 60s that worked out of churches and basements to recreate what theatre should be–open, not forced into the well-made structures that stifled and restricted what theatre can be: restricting, for instance, my own imagination about theatre such that all my life I’ve conceived of play only in the formula of what is well-made and structured well and Aristotlean by design.

I enjoyed this play very much, as did Kirsten. She stated it was one of the best plays that she has ever seen–and said it with a conviction that I believe. The production values were high and much credit is due the Play House for it. It seemed as strong to me, in terms of production, timing, execution, design, etc, as many Noel Coward productions I have seen at the Shaw Festival–and had a bursting energy and happiness exceed only by two other plays I’ve ever seen (both at Shaw): Three Men on a Horse and You Can’t Take It with You; the latter winning hands down because they actually let honest-to-god fireworks off on stage. There is a magical realism to the play that enhances the joy and sorrow of it, and some real humanness. I am not utterly convinced though that what I saw was a humanness or an imitation of humanness and not a genuine depth of feeling; I’m still trying to put my finger on that. At points the play seemed like a farcical Indie movie; like Il Postino or The Milagro Beanfield War. But The Clean House is a comedy, a realization driven home to me at how much of the laughter in the audience came at moments that were not, to me, comic–or if so, blackly so–such as Virginia’s morbidity at the outset. In the end, though, I found, as Kirsten stated, the whole of it to be believable and empathetic–especially in light of some things, such as Charles and Ana coming to ‘visit’ Lane, and the discussion of the bashert, where one in real life might be tempted to just say, ‘You know what? Get the &$%# out of my house.’ That is, it required no willing suspension of disbelief.

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