Review: The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl
Karin Finell -- October 7, 2007
Live Theater brims with lessons for writers. Karin Finell reviews The Clean House, comparing the work to that of other great writers. -- Editor
Do not miss The Clean House at Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theater playing now. It is good theater which will make you laugh and cry. The play 's structure is putting theater on its head. Where has a play ever begun with the telling of a lengthy joke in a foreign language few people are familiar with? (Advice: read the joke in translation in the playbill beforehand.) The language in case is Portuguese. Accompanied by the Brazilian music which makes your legs twitch in your seat, it doesn't matter one twit what the words of the jokes meant. This is due to the melodious voice and acting of Paula Christensen in the part of Matilde. The music made us want to dance, and added to the mood, while the stage set is stark and Zen-like, and the ambiance is created mainly with the excellent use of lights and images projected on a background screen. The setting could not have been better envisioned in a Broadway play.Bertold Brecht in his plays uses the technique of estrangement, often having his actors face the audience and speak to them directly. Sarah Ruhl, the author of The Clean House, makes use of this technique as well. And as in Brecht's plays, it does not lead to an estrangement, but to a deeper understanding of the character speaking the lines. Leads to an understanding of the human soul. I thought that Brecht understood the human spirit better than the followers of Ibsen's plays, exemplified in the New York Actors Studio, where the actor was to become the persona portrayed on stage. It was meant to be a stage of feeling. But as in Brecht's' play such as The Good Woman of Sezuan and Mother Courage, when a writer has heart it supercedes the "estranging" technique and we, the audience are grabbed by our own heart strings, manipulated by the actor on stage. Sarah Ruhl achieved such in her play. She mixed in magical realism, another style many new playwrights eschew. Ruhl manages to make the unreal seem more real than reality. With magical realism she conveys her most profound thoughts of love, of laughter, of life. Couples fly dancing through the air; a hero struggles against a snowstorm trying to bring home a tree that would lead to a cure, performing an act of love that might lead to salvation. In the end it does, but not the salvation the hero wished for. The second Act has to be seen to make sense of the first Act. The whole blends into a fable of love and forgiveness, individuality and quirkiness versus rigidity and following the ways of the past. It is a play that is both funny and tender and honest and in the end, moving and rewarding. What more can be said? It is a beautifully realized play, and one that I hope every writer who reads this will want to see. We all can learn from breaking the formulas of writing, be it playwriting or prose. Sarah Ruhl does this so masterfully in her heartfelt play.