Thursday, August 7, 2008

Do you believe in magic?

The Banyan Theater Company closes out its season with more sorcery. Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is magic. Not the rough magic of True West: two bloody halves of the masculine soul having a shoot-out in the cowpie-kicking western town of the American mind. Nah. The Clean House is lighter stuff. Basically, it's part fairy tale, part cartoon.

Think magical realism. Think Ionesco. Think Jules Ffeiffer.

Lane, a successful woman doctor (Seva Anthony), wants cleanliness and order in her universe, but life's messiness intrudes. Lane hires Mathilde (Karina Barros) to clean house — a Brazilian expatriate who wants to be a comic like her parents before her. (Telling the perfect joke is her life's dream.) Mathilde tells a good joke, all right — but she stinks at cleaning house. Mathilde doesn't see the existential point. If the floor's dirty, look at the ceiling. She gets away with this attitude, because Virginia (Geraldine Librandi), Lane's obsessive-compulsive sister, secretly cleans the house for her. Lane's husband, Charles (who's also a doctor — played by Robert Herrle) secretly falls in love with Ana (also a Brazilian — played by Annie Morrison), and dances away with her in a surreal scene immediately after a mastectomy operation. Lane doesn't notice any of this. The secrets stay under the rug — until things get very messy.

Without spoiling the ending, Lane learns to open up to the sloppy, human universe. Taken literally, the play is a machine designed to teach her that lesson. It's stacked against her. She has about as much chance as Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

But cartoons are first cousins to archetypes. The Clean House is not a literal play with literal characters. "Let your husband fool around and throw dirt on the living room floor" isn't the lesson. "Open your heart" is.

Ruhl's writing fizzes like a mad scientist's cocktail, 2 parts black comedy, 8 parts surrealist I Love Lucy episode and funny as hell. She deals with dark issues with a sweet, light touch.

A heavy hand would shatter this stuff. But director Doug Jones handles with care. Ruhl’s script probably wasn’t easy to work with — a pack of loopy characters speaking slantwise, Ionesco-style dialogue. Jones must have been tempted to elbow us in the ribs and force the comic pace. He doesn’t. Some jokes work best when they build slowly.

The actors are free to draw us into the magic. Librandi and Herrle are fine as the cartoony supporting characters. Anthony's great as Lane, not so much a cartoon as a blank slate for us to draw our own faces on. Like Scrooge, she's defined by what she's not: She Who Cuts Herself Off From Other People. She's the straight man, always a thankless task, but she's hilarious at it. Barros' character Mathilde is the Amelie-like muse of the play — the comedian angel who brings the message which saves us all. It's a tour de force performance; Barros' comic timing is brilliantly hilarious. Morrison's Ana is brilliantly heart-breaking. To be fair, Morrison and Barros' characters get most of the script's blood, sweat and tears. To be accurate, Ruhl's characters bleed into each other. Personal boundaries are fictions, at least in her play.

James A. Florek's clever staging reflects the boundary breaking. He bends the rules of physics like some show on the SciFi channel. Lane and Charles' upscale livingroom takes up most of the set; the second-tier platform at the back can be any point in the space-time continuum. In one scene, it becomes a balcony in Ana's beach apartment. The two Brazilian ladies throw apples; they comes thumping down in Lane's house. Nicely done.

Add it all up, and it's the stuff of magic. It's why we come to the theater.

At the end of the play, Mathilde tells her perfect joke — and one character dies laughing. We never know what the joke is, though of course we do. Life is the joke: death is the punchline. Duh.

In the end, the joke's on us.

We might as well be nice to each other.

The Clean House
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 24
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota