Making an audience laugh is not an easy task for any playwright, or for the actors indebted with bringing the author’s words to life on stage. Humor is primarily a matter of taste. Where one of might think a joke about geometry is hilarious, another prefers to watch an actor plummet headlong into a birthday cake. Expecting an entire audience to snort and guffaw at any one gag or line of dialogue is as optimistic as thinking that every patron in a restaurant will start salivating at the same single entree on the menu.
Unless, of course, it’s one very special entrée.
Which brings us to two brilliant-but-unconventional plays currently running in the North Bay. In Sarah Ruhl’s 2004 “The Clean House,” a Brazilian comedian-turned-house cleaner, Matilde – played by Livia Demarchi – confesses in her opening monologue that cleaning houses depresses her. Unfortunately, her over-stressed employer Lane – an excellent Sylvia Burboeck – is a surgeon who likes things clean. Meanwhile, Lane’s sister Virginia – Tamar Cohn, also wonderful – just isn’t happy unless she’s cleaning something, so a secret arrangement is made between Virginia and Maitilde wherein the former sneaks in to clean cleans Lane’s house every day while Matilde lies on the couch trying to think up the perfect joke – a joke, she says, that will be “somewhere between an angel and a fart.”
When Lane’s cancer surgeon husband Charles announces he’s fallen in love with a much older woman on whom he’s just performed a double mastectomy, life suddenly takes on a series of twists and turns for everyone, proving that, as tidy as we might like our lives to be, sometimes things just get messy.
Directed with energy and sensitivity by JoAnne Winter, “The Clean House” is packed with surprises, and is as funny as it is genuinely, authentically moving.
Jason Wells’ “The North Plan,” on the other hand is both broader and darker. Directed with a taste for farce and a furious sense of wicked glee by Rick Eldridge, “The North Plan” finds humor in the disconcerting not-too-distant future, a future made possible by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s pronouncement that torture isn’t torture if it’s applied not as punishment but as interrogation.
Ready to laugh?
Believe it or not, I think you will.
A mysterious shadow government has taken over the White House and declared martial law, and Carlton, a fugitive government employee has stolen a secret list of “government enemies.” Carlton is played by Sam Coughlin with a manic intensity reminiscent of Woody Allen, only more believable. When Carlton winds up in a rural Missouri jail awaiting the arrival of two scary government agents – John Browning and Jared Wright – he has no choice but to try and enlist the help of his jailers, the patient police chief Swenson, John Craven, and bored administrator Shonda, played by Miranda D. Lawson. When he strikes out there, he has no choice but to try and get through to his agitated, foul-mouthed fellow prisoner Tanya – played by Sharia Pierce, who is a hoot). Sharia is an unhinged local motor-mouth whose just turned herself in for drunk driving, and what happens next shouldn’t be funny, but in this cleverly crafted fable of fermenting revolution, the end of the world miraculously becomes wildly, inspiringly – and a bit frighteningly – hilarious.
“The North Plan” runs Thursday–Sunday through June 21 at Main Stage West. www.mainstagewest.com
“The Clean House” runs Thursday–Sunday through June 14 at Ross Valley Players. www.rossvalleyplayers.com
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.