Jokers and Fools

'Fool for Love' and 'Clean House' take different paths into the human heart

It's interesting to compare The Clean House and Fool for Love, now being performed at Live Theater Workshop and Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, respectively. Each deals with the agonies of love and loss. Each looks at the stories that we tell ourselves and each other.

The effect of each play, however, is wildly different.

The Clean House begins with a joke. It appears to be a dirty joke, but something is lost in translation—it's being told in Portuguese by a Brazilian woman named Matilde. And the plot plays out at first like the set-up of a joke. Matilde is a live-in maid, but the one thing she doesn't do is clean. Cleaning makes her sad. She would rather be inventing new jokes.

Her employer, Lane, is a no-nonsense, respected surgeon who likes order in her life and in her home. Lane's opposite number, her sister, Virginia, is a cleaning addict, who begins secretly cleaning Lane's house on the maid's behalf.

All well and good, but things get messy when Matilde and Virginia find another woman's silky panties mixed in with Lane's practical granny-pants and her husband's whitey-tighties.

Sarah Ruhl is a young playwright whose work is being staged in prominent theaters around the country, and no wonder. She mixes domestic realism with flights of fancy that lift her work right off the ground. The Clean House deals with heartache and loss, and yet the play feels like a light breeze on a beautiful day. Its sorrows are just one part of life's beauty.

The assembled cast strikes not a single false note, starting with Jodi Ajanovic as the Brazilian cleaning woman. With a face like avant-pop singer Regina Spektor, she has eyes that sparkle and a mouth that curls up into a sly grin each time she offers—at the most inappropriate times—"Would you like to hear a joke?" Ajanovic plays Matilde with deep humor and wisdom.

Rhonda Hallquist's Lane is a woman who keeps her world orderly by building protective walls. You can see the scared, lonely woman hiding behind the bluster.

Maxine Gillespie perfectly captures the physicality of Virginia. Beginning as a collection of tics and compulsive behaviors, as if her mind and body are barely on speaking terms, Virginia gradually softens into a fully dimensional human being as she opens up to the growing chaos in her life.

Michael F. Woodson and Carlisle Ellis are winningly uninhibited as they enact Matilde's passionate, joke-telling parents in the first act, and, in the second, become Lane's husband, Charles, and his Argentine lover, Ana. Woodson's Charles is a clueless, earnest charmer. Ana is full of contradictions: She brims over with life at the same time she's facing her own mortality. Ellis pulls all of these elements into a captivating and all-too-human character.

Director Leslie J. Miller has not only coaxed her cast into hilarious and heartbreaking performances, she has inspired her design team to help tell the story. Richard and Amanda Gremel establish the conflict by giving Lane a perfectly tidy, neutral-toned home, and Ana a colorfully lighted beach-side balcony. And costumer Cynthia Jeffery illuminates the characters' inner lives through their clothes. She dresses Ana, for example, in patterned skirts; at first, they're fiery red but they fade as she becomes ill.

Ruhl shows us that laughter and tears, birth and death, live side by side, and that their juxtaposition is messy but beautiful. The Clean House deserves to have a full house for the rest of its run.

Unfortunately, the effect of Fool for Love is wildly different. Beowulf Alley Theatre Company is a wonderful institution, with real heart and a consistently ambitious selection of material. But this production is a misfire.

The evening begins with a pre-show performance by cowboy poet Bill Black. Black's poems are like old Bill Monroe songs. They're warm and nostalgic and leave you with a smile. Their tone is so unlike that of the play to come, however, that the effect is jarring.

Theoretically, the combination of poems and play makes sense because playwright Sam Shepard's work is deeply steeped in the landscape of the Southwest. But his characters find no warmth or camaraderie in the Western wasteland. They survive by whatever means they can.

The plot is minimal. Two lovers cannot escape each other or their destructive relationship. Eddie (Daved Wilkins) has come back into May's life once again, having traveled thousands of miles to find her. May (Jessica Lea Risco) wants him to stay—just as passionately as she needs him to leave. Dan Higgins as the Old Man is a mysterious, persistent figment of Eddie's memory. Eric Smith is Martin, a gentle giant in way over his head.

Risco and Wilkins give committed, full-throttle performances as their characters pace and circle and climb the walls, using every last inch of Joel Charles' functional motel set. In fact, all four actors give fine performances individually, but they never connect with each other in the way that this play demands.

Eddie and May have been intimately acquainted since high school. They know each other's every raw nerve, every hot button, every secret addiction; they could slice each other to the heart with a single word. Yet they holler and threaten without ever seeming to land a blow.

Without a visceral connection between these two characters, the play spins in an endless loop without covering new dramatic ground. This big-picture problem should have been addressed by director Mike Sultzbach as he led his cast through their paces.

Sam Shepard's characters are all fools for love. They're love's puppets, helpless to resist their own humiliation and self-destruction as they pursue something that is ultimately a figment of their imagination. Sarah Ruhl's characters, on the other hand, emerge from their pain by learning to laugh at the great cosmic joke of their lives.

Two different ways to tell the human story, but this time, at least, laughter carries the day.

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