In Arts & Entertainment

"The Clean House" sparkles with order, disorder and laughter

Elizabeth Ledo's smile is exotic enough to be mysterious and warm enough to be infectious as she stands onstage at the beginning of the play, telling a joke in Portuguese. She sparkles with life, animating all the empty space around her in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. She's playing Matilde, a live-in maid who has never liked to clean. If the floor ever gets dirty, she says with wit beaming through an enchanting accent, just look at the ceiling instead: it's always clean. Matilde has never done work as a maid before. Perhaps she was a bit impulsive in taking the job.

Matlide has recently been hired by Lane: a doctor played by Laura Gordon who is very uncomfortable with the arrangement. Gordon excels in the role as a very driven, educated woman with a very dry sense of humor which surfaces under extreme stress. She's never had a live-in maid before, but would prefer not to clean her own house. This astonishes her sister Virginia, a housewife played by Peggy Roeder who is obsessed with cleaning. Her love of cleaning and the general loneliness of an empty house find her dropping by Lane's place and offering to do Matilde's work for her.

Things get a bit complicated when Virginia and Matilde find evidence of marital infidelity on the part of Lane's husband, also a doctor, played by Kim Sullivan. Things get even more complicated when Lane's husband drops by to introduce her to the woman he's having the affair with. Complication is stretched to its very limits as Matilde agrees to act as a maid for both Lane and her husband who moves-in with his lover. By the time Lane's husband goes on a trip to Alaska to chop down a tree for his lover, the complexity of things is a bit strange, but pleasantly so.

Chicago native playwright Sarah Ruhl's script is a slightly intoxicating bit of contemporary comedy that was nominated for last year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While each of them is a bit eccentric, Ruhl's characters all have an admirable, earthy depth that is cast against the disorienting background of a vaguely surreal domestic atmosphere. Challenging drama is played against moments of sheer absurdity that make for some really striking theatre. Dialogue ranges from really funny bits of comedy to lyrically powerful, nearly poetic exchanges. The plot also makes many brushes with poetry, most prominently in the moments it shares with the character of Matilde.

Matilde is a very charming young woman whose parents have recently died. Their death haunts her with bittersweet memories of them that dreamily play out onstage. According to Matilde, her mother died of laughter when her father told her the perfect joke. She has taken it upon herself to write the perfect joke so that she can know what it is. She's a very cleverly written character and Elizabeth Ledo plays her with charm that seems drawn from many sources. There is a very hypnotic rhythm to her delivery that never gets tiring.

Matilde's passion seems to casually draw all the characters together in a way that is at once overwhelming and incidental. She's at the center of the story without being the center of the story. Many subjects are touched on throughout the story, but the whole things seems to revolve around the importance of laughter. It's a story about cleanliness and dirtiness-order and disorder. But in the middle of it all is laughter and the importance of comedy in a world of complexity.

The Milwaukee Rep's production of The Clean House plays now through November 20th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater in the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex. Tickets range in price from $10 - $50 and can be purchased in advance by calling the box office at (414) 224-9490.

Talkbacks

OMCreader | Nov. 7, 2005 at 3:47 p.m. (report)

How did this show win an award? said: The only way this play could possibly win an award is if they picked the winning name out of a hat. There was very little good humor and even less thought-provoking theater. As a season ticket holder, I sure hope the plays improve.

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OMCreader | Oct. 31, 2005 at 9:16 a.m. (report)

Milwaukee gal said: I have to disagree with "Overbearing." I found this play to be very well written and thought provoking. Kudos to the Rep for presenting this play from a promising new playwright.

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OMCreader | Oct. 28, 2005 at 2:42 p.m. (report)

OverBearin said: No playgoer should be subjected to minutes of watching four women silently savor spoonfuls of chocolate ice cream unless it is to advance the storyline. It did not. They could have a least shared the ice cream with the audience. And if watching Lane slowly wash Ana’s face and hands and feet was supposed to make us believe she had grown a heart, it did not. It would have been more believable if she had gotten a heart-shaped clock from the Wizard of Oz. And half-eaten apples thrown into the sea represents what? Freedom from care? It’s okay to waste food? Give the apples to Virginia – she could have at least baked a pie to go with the homemade ice cream. What this nonsensical business represented was a playwright who needed to fill second act time. The plot never got more complicated than infidelity. Pick up the apples. Pick up the plant. Sweep up the dirt.

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