Smile Politely

White, laughter, and discontent

I always anticipate productions from the Celebration Theatre Company at the Station Theatre in downtown Urbana. My first show as an audience member was Light in the Piazza in 2011. The playing space was in the round and so small! I remember being a wide-eyed freshman, enraptured by the intimacy of the scene. Upon entering the space three years later for the Station’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, I found myself enraptured once again, but for different reasons. I’d been to a number of openings at the Station Theatre and am continually entranced by the community of art lovers that move around me. The audience energy is electric and supportive. Every seat is filled with bodies excited for the work; friends who collaborate with a cult-like familiarity.

Three years and several opening nights later, the connections were facilitated in an even more closed space. The audience was confronted with towering, stark white walls, and a white floor that extended to the front row. The scene both invited and rejected spectators by opening up to them but maintaining distance with the near-complete lack of color in the palette.

The lights went up. Three women aligned downstage and each had an opening monologue — or joke in Matilde’s case — with her name projected on the back wall. Each woman had a soliloquy. The laughs started, evolved into to roars as the show continued, and never stopped.

The Clean House tells the story of Matilde, a Brazilian comedian who, after her parents die, travels to America and cleans the house of a successful doctor, Lane. Matilde hates cleaning and would rather spend her time with her passion: thinking of the Perfect Joke. Lane’s sister, Virginia, loves to clean and offers to do Matilde’s job in secret. On the same day Lane learns her husband, Charles, has fallen in love with his patient, Ana, she also learns of her maid’s and sister’s agreement. As the story unravels, lessons of love and forgiveness are taught as the intricacies of the relationships play out.
Director Katie Baldwin Prosise worked to extract the surrealism and magic from the text. This was most prominent in her bold design choices and their striking intersections at principle moments. As a director, Baldwin Prosise was rooted in the text. As it stated in the program’s Director’s Note: “I am a defender of the director-playwright relationship. Directors and designers must respect the intent of the playwright’s words, just as a playwright must trust directors and designers to interpret the written message.” She embraced the flexibility of Ruhl’s language, stage direction, and her suggestion of emotions. Baldwin Prosise also worked to showcase the space and the talent of The Celebration Theatre Company with her debut effort.

While the director’s goals are certainly admirable, few authentically resonated with the audience. The show is executed with a heavy-handed aesthetic symbolism and an exaggerated humor that over-shadowed the sentiment of Ruhl’s story. As an audience member, I was overwhelmed with the choices. It felt like numerous options were being presented to me with a weak string of cohesion threading the elements together. This intimidation began with the walls of the set towering over me, continued with the almost mechanized choreography of the actors during transitions, the new age music choices, and ended with overt, colorful symbolism as Ana became more of a presence in Lane’s house. The story was compromised as I attempted to process everything.

The humor of this production was extremely successful, but the acting was distant and lacked honesty. Each player portrayed a character, projecting the emotion they deemed appropriate along with a stock gesture. Virginia, acted by Anne Newman, was the most memorable, but this was because her character was the most well-written. Laura Anne Welle, who acted Matilde, offered a bubbly energy that complimented her character, but matched this with unnatural gestures and expressions that played for humor. Lane, acted by Deb Richardson, maintained an armor between actor and character; as a spectator, I was aware of her “acting” the entire show. The ensemble responded well to each other, however. The bouncing of their energy was alive, but the catches and tosses were safe and rehearsed. Personas were being played on stage.

The humor of The Clean House was handled in such a way that it was too funny for the important moments to matter. It was too impersonally handled to allow space for feeling anything but comedy, even during the tragic pieces. In this show, humor was handled one-dimensionally. Matilde’s parents were comedians and laughed all the time, but why? Why was Matilde constantly trying to think of the Perfect Joke, even when confronted with so much melancholy? Joy is used as a distraction from reality both in our world and the world of the text. This show’s ignorance of this complexity created an awkwardness during the tragic climax of the show, to the audience’s disadvantage.

The Clean House, presented by the Celebration Theatre Company at the Station Theatre, attempted to enrich Sarah Ruhl’s text of magic, love, and forgiveness.  However, the show’s bold design aesthetic, blatant symbolism, and humor overshadowed the rich relationships and complexities of the characters. The audience left entertained, I believe, but in some ways, unsatisfied.

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Photos courtesy of Sean O’Connor

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