By Michael Chung Klam
It seems like the perfect formula for a telenovela tragicomedy: Lane’s successful surgeon husband leaves her for an older woman, Ana, who has a lust for life and a serious illness.
Matilde’s father, a renowned Brazilian comedian, commits suicide after telling the perfect joke to his wife, who laughs herself to death.
Lane is a wealthy, white doctor like her husband, who hires Matilde, a Brazilian immigrant maid, to clean her splendidly white house… but Matilde despises cleaning and dreams of being a comedian and discovering the perfect joke not unlike the one that killed her mother.
Lane’s sister, Virginia, has a cleaning fetish, so she and Matilde make a vow of secrecy that will soon be disrupted by the messiness of love, loss and friendship.
What could become a melodramatic yarn that slips into stereotypes and bad jokes, instead takes on a metaphysical, lyrical life in the hands of award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl. Her 2004 romantic comedy “The Clean House” opens at the San Diego Repertory Theatre on Feb. 29.
The play, which won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2004 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, carries the audience from cleaning the floorboards to cleansing both the mind and the spirit.
“This is a very dignified play,” said Ivonne Coll, who plays Ana. “There are no stereotypes, no gang members, no ‘Ay ay ay!’”
“I’ve never seen this type of work that better represents us,” said the Puerto Rican-born actor.
Coll, who once competed for Puerto Rico in the Miss Universe pageant, went on to perform on Broadway. Her credits include “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” “Shakespeare on Broadway” and “Goodbye Fidel.” She has appeared in television shows such as “NYPD Blue,” “LA Law,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” and the telenovela “El Sirviente.”
After meeting Francis Ford Coppola on the island and performing as nightclub singer Yolanda in “The Godfather II,” Coll decided she wanted to be an actor. She was on set during the filming of Fredo’s betrayal when Michael Corleone gives his brother the kiss of death and says, “You broke my heart.” Coll was so impressed with Al Pacino’s transformation and performance as the Godfather that she decided to dedicate her life to the craft.
San Diego audiences will recognize Coll from her much acclaimed portrayal in La Jolla Playhouse’s 2006 production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage.”
Coll and her fellow cast members in “The Clean House” take on equally intricate roles. Through the jokes and the laughter, the characters’ complexities reveal themselves in experiences of jealousy, sibling rivalry, family disputes, deep love, confronting death, and living life to its fullest. But their differences, both personal and cultural, drive the play. Lane (Rosina Reynolds) who does not see beyond the stereotypes at first finds herself surrounded by these unexpectedly powerful women, and is forced into self-awareness.
“The effect that Ana has in Lane’s life is positive,” Coll said. While the decisions that Ana makes in her life (falling in love with Lane’s husband) could be judged by some as selfish, “In the end, Ana’s liveliness, gusto for life, her joyfulness is something that Lane lacks or has forgotten about,” she said.
Lane’s awakening ultimately brings about change, but what about Matilde and this “perfect joke?”
Director Sam Woodhouse has a little bit of theater magic in store for the audience. After all, what would happen if Matilde actually told the joke? Would we all die laughing in our seats?
Woodhouse expressed faith in his performers to prepare the audience. “One needs actors with big hearts and equally big stage presence to play Matilde and Ana,” he said. Both Claudia (Vazquez, who plays Matilde) and Ivonne (Coll) have that ability to step to the center of stage and own a room with charisma, intelligence, talent and craft,” he said.
Vazquez, to prepare for the role of Matilde, had jokes e-mailed to her every day. “There is an art to telling jokes,” she said.
Vazquez also had to learn to tell the play’s big joke in Portuguese, and worked with a Brazilian coach. Vazquez watched her movements and recorded her voice to get the accent and the joke right.
“Everytime I come to a new project it’s like learning to play on a new playground,” she said. “Sam is really passionate about this play. From the moment I met him I knew it was something that he really cared about, and I care equally about it.”
Vazquez said her passion is storytelling. Having recently portrayed roles as a “gangsta girl” and a “ghetto low-wage girl,” she said part of her interest in “The Clean House” was that a non-Latino wrote non-stereotypical roles. And Vazquez looks forward to portraying a character that helps open Lane’s mind to a “completely different, spicier life than the average American life.”
That seems to part of the mission at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, too.
“The actors on stage at the Rep,” Woodhouse said, “should represent the grand diversity of our world culture.”
Annie Hinton, founder and former co-executive director of The Actors Alliance of San Diego, plays the obsessively tidy Virginia. And veteran actor Ron Choularton plays Lane’s husband, Charlie. Choularton, a San Diego Critic’s Circle award winner, previously portrayed Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and Alfred P. Dolittle in “My Fair Lady.”
Rosina Reynolds, one of San Diego’s most prized actors, named Outstanding Female Lead by the San Diego Critic’s Circle for her role in “Wit” at North Coast Repertory Theatre, plays Lane.
“The Clean House” opens February 29 and continues through March 22. Performances begin in previews on February 23 at San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum, Horton Plaza. For tickets and information visit www.sandiegorep.com