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'The Clean House': The bounds of reality are dissolved in the latest offering from Island Stage Left
The bounds of reality are dissolved in the latest offering from theater company Island Stage Left. Within the solid reality of the venue, San Juan County Fairgrounds, Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House” is due to be performed in all its original playfulness.
“She has enormous imagination,” director Helen Machin-Smith says of the playwrite. Ruhl, who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize two years in a row, is stylistically drawn to allegory and magic-realism.
“There is a leaning in her toward non-linear thinking,” says Machin-Smith, describing the themes that pervade Ruhl’s previous work.
The play is billed as a comedy and, as Machin-Smith says, “a little kookier than anything that’s been done before in Friday Harbor.”
However, audiences should not expect whimsy or mere light entertainment. Ruhl is the playwrite who in another work placed one protagonist in a cafe next to a dead man and his ringing cell phone. The drama may be comically unusual, but it is not fluff.
Thus “The Clean House” keeps one foot in the sober while the other waves in the air. “The characters are real, but the situations are not serious,” says Machin-Smith, explaining how the comic, absurdist side of the play is a product of real-life dynamics. Thus we have sibling rivalry and marital repression, juxtaposed with a death caused by laughter.
These touches of magic/realism bring to mind the literature of South America, and so it seems appropriate that a Portuguese maid and her joke-telling parents provide a catalyst to the plot. Into a house obsessed by cleanliness comes a Brazilian maid who, as Machin-Smith says, “is the daughter of the two funniest people of the world.” In an unfortunate twist of fate, the father kills the mother by accident when he tells her the funniest joke ever and she dies of laughter. The maid, then, is on the search for such a perfect joke.
Woven around this core of comedy is the relationship between two sisters, Lane and Virginia. Both are equally neurotic about hygiene, however the former requires someone else to clean for her (hence she hires the maid) and the latter wishes only to clean for herself. Throw in a stoic husband who softens as a new love takes hold, and the antics of Virginia as she takes on the duties of the maid, and chaos ensues.
This balancing act of language, humor and poignancy is well handled by the cast. Machin-Smith says the five actors are well equipped to mix the real and the fanciful.
Krista Strutz, Joan Benney and Daniel Mayes, all veteran Island Stage Left performers, are joined by two new cast members: Chetna Michaan, a resident of the island for three years, and equity actress Ashley Flannegen, currently based in Seattle. On opening night, they will have had five weeks of rehearsals. The cast being “a pretty creative lot,” Machin-Smith says, she is confident of enjoyable evening.
At a Glance
— Where: San Juan County Fairgrounds
— When: April 8-May 9, Thursdays-Sundays
— Time: Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m.
— Admission: Free, but donations appreciated.