If 90% of a director’s job is casting the right actors for the roles, then Mary Ellis has nailed it for Sarah Ruhl’s sparkling play The Clean House. All five actors excel in their roles.
I was particularly impressed by an actor I’ve seen only once before: Puja Uppal. She plays Matilde, a 22-year old Brazilian immigrant hired as a live-in maid by two wealthy American doctors, Lane and Charles. Unfortunately for the doctors, Matilde isn’t much of a cleaner. She says, “if the floor is dirty, I look at the ceiling. It’s always clean.”
Matilde is mourning her recently deceased parents (“the two funniest people in Brazil”), she hates to clean house (it makes her sad), and her life goal is to create the perfect joke. According to Matilde, the perfect joke makes you forget about your life, and it makes you remember about your life. It’s “somewhere between an angel and a fart.” Not to worry—what seems like a bizarre character on paper is, in Uppal’s capable hands, a sweetly believable character on stage.
Cindy Beaton is the actor who consistently tickled my funny bone on opening night. She plays Lane’s sister Virginia, a middle-aged housewife with “a deep impulse to order the universe.” She does so by compulsively cleaning. Her proudest boast is “if I were to die at any point in the day, no one would have to clean my kitchen!”
Beaton has a moment alone on stage early in the play when she flits around Lane’s living room, fussily tidying up magazines and ornaments. Her wordless performance had me in stitches. Ditto some laundry-folding of undies which gets her all hot and bothered. Her other appearances, particularly when she is interacting with Lane, are equal parts passive aggressiveness, barely tamped down despair, and warm compassion.
Robin Guy, artistic director of Three Sisters Theatre Company, plays Lane initially as an upper class Type A bitch. In response to Matilde’s penchant for telling jokes, she says “I don’t want an interesting person to clean my house.” Still, she’s unsure how to deal with a servant: Matilde must coach Lane to talk to her as she does to the nurses at the hospital. Lane also lobs some cruel truths at Virginia, knowing as only a sister can where to stick the knife. But Lane’s unhappiness soon becomes evident. Her disintegration and barely controlled fury when she learns that Charles has fallen madly in love with a patient are impressive. Where she takes her character after that is even more interesting.
The sole male actor, Guy Buller, plays both Charles and Matilde’s father with elan. His Charles is utterly believable as both the cooly professional oncology surgeon and the head-over-heels impassioned lover. His antics in the throes of love are priceless! And when he mimes Matilde’s imagined father, you see a suave and humourous Brazilian gentleman. You can even believe that her father told such good jokes that… no, I won’t give away any more of the plot.
Then there’s Rebecca Benson who plays Ana, Charles’ breast cancer patient and lover. It’s easy to see how Charles could fall so deeply in love with Ana. Her Argentinian joie de vivre is a delight. Her astonishment at falling—hard—for a doctor (she abhors doctors!) is equally delightful. Benson also plays Matilde’s imagined mother with sweet grace.
It’s a rare play that elicits sympathy for all its characters. The Clean House, however, achieves this. All the more remarkable a feat, since it is an amalgam of comedy, drama, and surrealism. Moreover, Ruhl has incorporated a slew of theatrical themes into her script: grief, marital infidelity, American class structure, joyless workaholism, immigration, cancer, family conflicts, women’s relationships with each other, and mental illness. There are fantasy scenes and even snatches of opera! On paper, none of this should work. On stage at The Gladstone, it works beautifully!
It’s a rare play that elicits sympathy for all its characters. The Clean House, however, achieves this. All the more remarkable a feat, since it is an amalgam of comedy, drama, and surrealism.
Even good actors need good directors. Mary Ellis is one of Ottawa’s best directors. For some reason, neither she nor her assistant director, Sarah Finn, are mentioned in Three Sisters’ advertising material. Big mistake!
Everyone else backstage deserves applause, too. All the technical aspects—lighting, sound design, costumes, stage management—click perfectly. The lighting design by David Magladry is particularly well crafted and integral to the success of the play.
Except for Magladry and Buller, all those involved in The Clean House are female. Is this a coincidence, or one of the reasons that a play focused on women is so successful? I wonder…
Three Sisters Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House is playing at The Gladstone Theatre until February 24. The performance starts at 7:30pm and is approximately 120 minutes long, including one intermission. Information and tickets at available at online and at The Gladstone’s box office.