Theater of the Cliche
Listen to/Watch entire show:
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
I laughed, I cried. It's better than Cats. It's a play for the whole family. I'm going again. I heard Shakespeare for the first time.
Now those are some terrible theater clichés. And that's what I want to talk about. There's a fascinating moment right before the end of Act One in Sarah Ruhl's play, Clean House.
An uptight, overachieving doctor named lane married to a mostly absent surgeon suddenly realizes that her life is falling apart. Her husband is going to leave her for one of his patients. The world is crashing down on her and suddenly she's filled with laughter that morphs into tears and back into laughter.
It's a theatrical chestnut that actors, directors and playwrights drag out when they want to capture those perplexing and poignant moments of life. It's too often a stand in for the complicated writing that really reveals the moment. It's a band-aid.
But here's the thing - there's something perfect about it in this particular play. There's something self-aware about the moment. Almost like Sarah Ruhl is winking at us through the cliché, and teasing the actress to find new life in it.
Anne Bogart, the renown avante-garde theater director, dissects cliche in her book, A Director Prepares. “I had always mistrusted cliches and stereotypes. I was afraid of settling on any solution that wasn't completely unique and original.”
Anne then tells the story of watching an actress whose work in rehearsal was filled with unfocused cliches. The work seemed as stale and predictable as anne expected. Then a curious alchemy took place. Rather than avoiding the cliches, the director forced the actress to embrace them and burn through them. To go so far into the cliche that something honest and original revealed itself.
It's this alchemy that sarah ruhl seems to be after in Clean House. Much of the play seems strangely familiar. It feels like a predictable domestic comedy filled with…cliches. We have the overachieving wife who's lost track of her life. We have the poetic Latina maid who's going to reveal some inner longing. We have the neurotic sister who's envious but really just wants to help.
And if that's where Sarah Ruhl's writing stopped we'd have a completely dismissible evening of theater.
Instead, the playwright seems to be begging for a new honesty to illuminate these cliches.
Unfortunately, all that effort fails to extricate itself from the morass of cliches.
The production settles for the predictable. The easy witty comedy works, but the rest…well, it's a cliché. It's a pity because the charming cast seems to have talent to go there. They just could find the way.
The Clean House plays through July 18 at the Odyssey Theater. I'd love to hear your favorite theatrical cliche at KCRW.com/theater. This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.