4th-Year Drama's Clean House


Laughing at the Tragic Moments

Helen Cespedes, who plays Virginia, gets primal with stage manager Lisa Gavaletz (center) and
director Marcela Lorca.

 (Photo by Jeffrey Cuyubamba)


Marcela Lorca thinks of plays as playgrounds, and she’s the “instigator of play,” she said shortly after arriving at Juilliard. “They’re called plays for a reason.” Lorca, the movement director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is directing the fourth-year drama production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, which opens November 8. DUE TO THE HURRICANE, CLEAN HOUSE WILL OPEN NOVEMBER 9.

Clean House

Director Marcela Lorca surveys the action with Gavaletz (center) and fellow stage manager Tyler Mullen.

(Photo by Jeffrey Cuyubamba)


The Clean House, which premiered in 2004 at the Yale Rep, is the story of Lane, a midcareer doctor whose seemingly perfect life includes a seemingly perfect husband, Charles (Michael James Shaw). Lane (played by Phoebe Dunn) has recently hired a Brazilian housekeeper, Matilde, whose one desire is discover the world’s best joke. The first problem is that Matilde (Andrea Syglowski) has stopped cleaning. “I never liked to clean,” she explains to Lane’s sister, Virginia. “When I was a child I thought: if the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling. It is always clean.” Virginia (Helen Cespedes), floundering in her own life, loves to clean so she secretly takes over Matilde’s job even though she knows it would infuriate her sister if she found out. As the action progresses, it turns out that Lane’s house—and life—aren’t perfectly in order on any level, which has become clear by the time the fifth character, Ana (Katherine Wood), arrives.

Lorca leaped at the chance to direct The Clean House at Juilliard. “It combined so many things I love. I wanted to direct a comedy because I’ve directed my share of tragedies lately,” she told The Journal. “It’s got great female roles. And it addressed the issue of cultures and encounters between cultures, and I was very interested in that.” Lorca was born in Chile, but grew up largely in Guatemala because of Chile’s 1973-90 dictatorship. She has been at the Guthrie since 1991, where she’s worked as a movement director, choreographer, master teacher, and director. 

While the play has many laugh-out-loud lines—and a subplot about the perfect joke—it’s not a traditional comedy. “It’s got its own unique style—it’s kind of elusive and I’ve been discovering it as I work on it,” Lorca said. “The circumstances and the characters are very realistic, but there’s a sense of playfulness in the writing that keeps it very buoyant, so we laugh at the tragic moments, but we also sometimes feel really deep empathy because the characters are going through very recognizable situations, at least for people of a certain age.” 

Lorca feels her approach to the play is different than it would have been when she first read it, shortly after it was written. “I’m closer to the age of most of the characters [who are in their late 40s and 50s], and I can laugh about things I took more seriously before,” she said. Matilde, the housekeeper, is much younger, but she “serves as a catalyst for these people to confront the fact that they’ve become rigid in their lives. What she really wants is just to make people laugh. The idea of the perfect joke is a bit of a religion for her, but she brings an open-heartedness and common sense to the other characters.”

In the 2006 Lincoln Center Theater production of the play, Jill Clayburgh played Lane and Blair Brown was Virginia. The Juilliard actors, of course, aren’t anywhere near the ages of the majority of the characters—getting them to play older roles is a multistep process, Lorca said. “I always invite them to the world of the play first. They’ve done all this intellectual homework [over the summer], but then they come into a physical space and need to tackle to the work with their whole body and soul and mind,” she added. “Once they’re in the physical space, I like to establish certain rules and unleash the forces of play so they can discover their own truth.” Then she starts helping them find ways to act like people twice as old as they are, giving them exercises that have to do with “gravity having worked on you 24/7 and taken hold of your joints,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be completely athletic and mobile, but you don’t exert as much energy as you do when you’re younger.”

Much of Lorca’s career has been in staging. When she arrived at the Guthrie, she worked with Garland Wright, who left the company in 1995 and joined the Juilliard faculty. “He was masterful at staging—a sculptor in the space and a sculptor of actors,” she said. While her style is quite different than his, all that work has made her very comfortable with staging—“in a way, it’s the last thing I do, because it’s easier. But I’m not a sit-down director. I’m always moving around.”

And, indeed, at an early rehearsal for The Clean House, Lorca was frequently on her feet, coaxing Virginia, the neatnik sister, to be more expansive in a rebellious moment that ultimately lets her find a different side of herself. At several points in the play, as various characters lives unwind, Matilde says that it’s just like a soap opera. “And who hasn’t had moments where you go, ‘this is like a soap opera, and I can’t get out’,” Lorca said. “I think that’s the genius of Sarah Ruhl [the playwright]. She has these five characters who are very different from one another and who are struggling with very distinct issues. All this clashing happens because they want different things, but through their interactions, they’re able to transcend their own small-mindedness into becoming people who are open and generous and infinitely loving.”

Given what happens at the end of the play (no, we’re not going to give it away), it might seem odd to call it a comedy. But while it’s sad, it is a kind of triumph. “These women accept that they’re going to drop their preconceived notions of what’s right and wrong and care for [someone] with a generous and open heart. It’s such a beautiful lesson, and it goes back to common sense—if we used common sense a little more often, life would be a little easier and kinder,” Lorca said. “The play is just gorgeous that way.”

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