IF YOU GO
701 5th Avenue South, Naples, FL
Whatever I expected at the Naples Players show "The Clean House" Wednesday, I didn't get it. I got something better. Thank you, Michael Scanlan, your actors and a talented creative team for bringing Sarah Ruhl's vision of a frozen tableau thawing and warming to life alive in such vivid fashion.
Try to describe "The Clean House." Umm. Well. OK.
A doctor (Lane) hires a Brazilian maid (Matilda, pronounced Ma-chil-gee), who was the third-funniest person in her village until mom died of laughter and dad shot himself. Disliking her promotion to Funniest Girl in Town, Matilda leaves to become a maid. Matilda hates to clean, so doctor's sister (Virginia) mops while Matilda makes up jokes.
Add a cheating husband, cancer, a snowstorm, a mysterious "you tree" and we've got a play! All happens inside Jason Sherwood's stunning chalky cube lit by Ted DeGroot's elegant wash of perfectly timed luminescence. White squares lined with acres of rippling, flowing milky fabric suggest eternity (or possibly the afterlife).
Don't worry. Really. Get through the front door, you're good. It will all make perfect sense.
Sarah Ruhl writes plays that wander around in the metaphysical garden, plucking subject matter from philosophy, technology, medicine, religion, mythology, you name it. Her work has layers of meaning; spare prose allows directors a wide range of interpretation and experimentation.
Most of Ruhl's work, including "The Clean House," exists in a whimsical universe where might folks die of laughter or "Thus Spake Zarathustra" bongs out in key moments (sound design from Craig Walck). Scanlan, working here with amateur actors, presses hard on the comedy pedal, mining the show's eccentric and peculiar vein of humor. The audience loved his choice, cackling like mad things all through the night.
Honestly? For me, "The Clean House" emerges a little messy; some scenes bubble with fizzy delight while others struggle for life. I applaud the amateur cast, especially newcomers to the Naples Players stage, for their strong efforts in tackling such an ambitious show.
Surprises pop up in unexpected corners though.
Bonnie Knapp completely reinvents mopey Matilde in a revelatory performance. What seems an impossible challenge - the actress playing an ethnic character half her age - works like magic within Ruhl's daffy firmament.
Knapp's Matilda opens the show with a filthy joke. A long, extremely dirty joke. A very long, mind-bogglingly filthy joke. Told entirely in Portuguese. And gets the crowd laughing ages before she gets within sniffing distance of the punchline. And when she does arrive there, she mimes an unprintable act that involves hips moving backward and forward that can only be mistaken for one thing, the kind of things husbands do on their wedding night. The crowd erupts.
Knapp spent years in Brazil; she knows the culture, the language and the rhythms. The hip-rolling, side-to-side, sensual physicality she brings to Matilda's walk transforms her on stage. Her depressed domestic still retains the joie de vivre that you imagine those luscious cocau beauties sauntering down the beach in Ipanema wearing tiny sarongs consider a birthright. Matilda does not walk, she propels - with confidence. Everybody needs Bonnie Knapp's Matilda in their life.
Paige Castro shows flashes of a inspired brilliance interpreting neat freak Virginia. Her manic energy powers the play forward. Karen Ezrine (Lane) does well to capture her repressed doctor's frozen withdrawal. Lucrecia Pummer offers wonderful Latin charm and incredible warmth as Ana. A terrifically game but terribly miscast Michael Troop brings deep emotion to the play's final, touching moments.
Like that long-forgotten TV remote you find in the couch cushions and the favorite earring you'd given up for lost, the surprises continue to emerge from "The Clean House."
Two distinct and different plays occur at the exact same time on the Tobye Studio stage. As actors move, speak, throw things, enter, exit and tell jokes in Portuguese, something else, something wonderful, happens.
Scanlan conceived the idea of Lane's house (the metaphor for her life) as a bare palette. As patrons enter, they stare at this bare bleached box. Once words litter the stage, Scanlan likewise litters Lane's life. Into the sterile space color comes, tiny drop by tiny drop. If you can divide your attention, try to observe the process and its exquisite timing. For the unsubtle, color equals emotion.
First, black appears; it balances the white. Then silver. Sexy red lace panties explode with the weight of a thousand unspoken words; they add a tart touch. Lighting, at first a gentle brightness that comes from everywhere and nowhere, blooms to make the space feel like a house.
More colors appear. Now patterns. In a shocking pop, my favorite piece of the night bursts onto the stage. Castro pops up in a pair of flower print rubber gloves, the kind that cover half your arm. Crates of apples spill out in the corner.
As characters enter and exit, sometimes they leave objects, like a vase or strawberry-red hot water bottle, on the set. Like a stain, those colors blot the white, bringing another little bit of mess to Lane's heretofore perfect life. At the same time, the character begins to understand her emotions.
The process becomes an exercise in anticipation, at least for me. Each entrance and exit arrives with surge of energy and the pounding question: "What happens now?" The show's most significant, symbolic, beautiful and heart-rending transition, when a key character finally accepts a life change, happens quietly, in the space of seconds and with the grace of angels. I won't spoil it, but you should see it coming. Scanlan and his creative team layer the emotion so that you wait, want and desperately need the two major changes and experience this catharsis - even if you don't know why - when they happen.
Full credit to the crew, including production stage manager Rhoda Pugh and stage manager Jim Bollinger. And the cast. Not only did they have to master a difficult text, the Rube Goldberg machine that is the subtext had to be designed, tested and put into practice at the same time as everything else.
Costumer (and color sorceress) Dot Auchmoody saves some of her best, most gorgeous and delicate work of the season for this show. Hers is a masterpiece - and the key to unlocking the play's puzzle. Note what the show has to say about love: "It's dirty. Like a good joke." Also? Kneepads (for scrubbing floors of course) to match the aforementioned gloves.
"Clean House" taps something primal within theatre. I suspect the show may combust in a slightly different manner each night, feeding off the crowd and the actors themselves.
"Clean House" tries to get audiences to focus on what's important in life. Is a clean house important? Dunno. The characters in the play have clean houses, but barren, empty, unhappy lives. But when the lives become a little messy, things change.
I have a cleaning service. And a laundry service. My house is not clean. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.