Review by Robin Breon
The Clean House, Sarah Ruhl's clever dramady (written in 2005) about love and death; failure and renewal, is a ready metaphor for the current season at CanStage that sees the company $700,000 dollars in debt prompting artistic producer Martin Bragg to conduct his own house cleaning by amputating the new play development department of a company that has new play development as the primary raison d'etre of its mandate. This might sound like a mixed metaphor were it not for the fact that the two protagonists of the play are physicians who deal with this sort of thing on a daily basis.
Director Alisa Palmer has put together a snappy production that is perfectly cast with Seana McKenna and Joseph Ziegler as the husband and wife physicians, Lane and Charles, who would seem to have everything they need in life including a Brazilian maid named Matilde (played by Nicola Correia-Damude in her Canadian stage debut) who would rather be a comedian than a cleaning woman. But the real comedian in the piece is Fiona Reid who plays Lane's sister, Virginia, who is a compulsive cleaner. So much is cleaning a compulsion for Virginia that when she finishes her own house she comes over to her sister's place thereby relieving Matilde of the onerous task of polishing the silver and freeing her up for more important endeavors such as philosophizing and moralizing on the role of humor in life and the construction of the perfect joke. Reid reprises her stock character of the anal retentive, neurotic to great comic affect. I say this with no hesitation because Fiona Reid is an actor of great range and talent who has shown herself capable of immense breadth during the course of her career. But if you want that kind of uptight, waspy character such as the one she played in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (remember the bundt cake?) bring in Fiona to do the job.
The joke starts to wear thin in the second half, however, and by the end we are tittering at the rather clumsy demise of the free soul(ed) Ana (played with sensitivity by Mary Ann McDonald) who has fallen in love with Charles (and he with her) and is then diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Matilde's perfect joke that literally allows Ana to die laughing is inexplicably staged down center on the apron with Ana falling to the floor for her death throes uncomfortably close to the audience. Whatever sympathy we might have had for her quickly evaporates with the awkwardness of it all.
The hue and cry that accompanied the house cleaning at CanStage continues to mount as I write this review. There are currently no new plays in development or scheduled for the coming season, which is fast becoming a sore point for the greater Toronto theatre community. The head of the house - Martin Bragg - may soon have to get out the mop himself in order to clean up this mess. So far he has been unavailable for comment.