The title is beguilingly simple but layered with meaning: Sarah Ruhl’s 2004 play The Clean House aligns literal housecleaning à la Windex and furniture polish with a metaphysical cleaning house: an exorcising of emotional baggage.
“I love Sarah Ruhl’s writing because she has these fantastic poetic images, but they’re always very specific to the characters; it’s always founded, even when it’s poetic,” says director Amy DeFelice of Trunk Theatre, who describes The Clean House as a “magic-realist comedy drama”—so, a show that resists being pigeon-holed at every turn.
A script that calls for three female actors over 40 and one male—which DeFelice finds a refreshing change from the usual roles actresses often find themselves taking. The Clean House follows Matilde, a Brazilian housekeeper who is trying to become a comedienne. She’s inspired to this path by her late parents: her mother died of laughter from the funniest joke in the world, which was crafted by her father, who then committed suicide in despair.
“[Matilde] will be attempting to clean a house and then she’ll be distracted by her parents, and they’ll tango across the living room she’s in,” DeFelice explains. “Instead of playing the grief-stricken character, which isn’t that interesting for an audience to watch, it’s much more interesting to go, ‘No, let’s see them dance!’ And then you understand more why she misses them.”
With death as a cornerstone of the play, one might assume the script is morose, or maudlin, even; but DeFelice emphasizes this isn’t Ruhl’s treatment of the material.
“There’s a lovely woman who’s helping us with the Portuguese in the show, and she’s telling us how, more specific to Brazil, there’s not quite that need to separate the dead in your life; there’s more connection to the spiritual world, in a way,” she says. “I think that’s why we [in North America] find it harder to mourn sometimes—we don’t know how to deal with remembering our dead sometimes.”
“If it was somebody else writing this play it would be a drama; some of the characters are in a comedy and some of the characters are in what would be called a domestic drama,” she continues. “There’s moments when characters are at their most serious and earnest, that they’re also at their most comic—the dramatic event is so close to the comedy sometimes.”
Until Sat, Mar 1 (7:30 pm)
Directed by Amy DeFelice
Varscona Theatre, $20 – $25