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Paula Rebelo and Denise Simone

Co-stars of The Clean House on cleaning up life's messes

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When The Clean House opened in New York City in 2006, it was heralded by The New York Times as "one of the finest and funniest new plays you're likely to see."

Penned by playwright Sarah Ruhl, the comedy was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. A dissection of class, sexuality and, yes, cleanliness, The Clean House brings together two married doctors, a sister of one of the doctors who sees the "quintessence" in dust, the other doctor's mistress and a Brazilian housekeeper who doesn't like to clean at all—instead, she's always telling jokes (in Portuguese) in hopes of someday becoming a professional comedian.

The play is now running at Boise Contemporary Theater and will continue through Saturday, May 6. Two of the comedy's co-stars, Paula Rebelo (who plays the Brazilian housekeeper) and Denise Simone (who plays the doctor's sister) took some time out between performances to talk with Boise Weekly about the play and the mess of life.

It struck me when I first saw this play that among the things that divide us in this country—politics, religion, geography—cleaning, and whether we do it ourselves or expect someone else to do it, separates us as well.

Simone: The lead character of The Clean House is a doctor who hires a cleaning woman.

And there's a line in the play where the doctor says, "I didn't become a doctor so that I would clean my own house."

Simone: Exactly. But there's also this shame that she has for hiring someone else to clean. She's not even comfortable having someone else in her house; plus, she doesn't want a relationship with a cleaning person.

But your character, the doctor's sister, loves to clean and even convinces the cleaning woman to let you clean your sister's house on the sly.

Simone: Absolutely. My character loves to clean. I love dust. I find that cleaning helps me not to think, not to have to think about all the things I haven't done in my life. And as the play goes on, and my character cracks open, I learn that I can live with the mess of life a bit more.

And Paula, your character is paid to clean.

Rebelo: I'm actually from Brazil. So culturally, I come from a place where it's very common for the middle-class to have a live-in maid. But my character, Matilde, didn't come to America to clean. She wants to become a comedian. Cleaning makes her depressed.

As a comedian, you're constantly telling jokes in The Clean House. I think they're funny, because you're having a grand old time up there, but they're never translated, which is a joke in itself. Can you tell me a joke in Portuguese?

Rebelo: Sure. Hmm. Let me think of one. Qual e a diferenca entre um homem e E.T.? Pelo menos E.T. telefones para casa.

I must know the translation.

Rebelo: What's the difference between a man and E.T.? At least E.T. phones home.

Matlide breaks some pretty tense or awkward moments with her constant joke telling.

Rebelo: Sarah Ruhl does this beautiful job of writing awkward moments between human beings and this play is full of them. When we have no idea how to react to that awkwardness, Matilde's go-to response is a joke—the truest thing to who she is and what she has to offer.

Paula, I know this is your first visit to Idaho but, Denise, you're certainly no stranger to Idaho.

Simone: I was a founding member of the Company of Fools in Hailey. But this is my first time at Boise Contemporary Theater and I'm loving it.

You're both accomplished actresses with impressive resumes. Do you still get the jitters when you open a new play?

Simone: Absolutely. It's good to get the jitters. I'd be concerned if I didn't.

Live theater, by design, can be totally different every night; but even more so for comedy.

Rebelo: Because it has to be true. The Clean House deals with a lot of honest moments, but we have to be in the presence of one another to discover where to find life's drama or life's comedy.

Simone: Comedy comes from real moments. In the theater, an audience can step back and see those moments that we've had countless times. I think it was the playwright Paula Vogel who said, "The way to someone's emotions is to open their solar plexus with a laugh." And when we're laughing, all those really hard, painful moments get to seep through the laughter.

Rebelo: And I think tears and laughter sit on the same edge.

Simone: And that's what Sarah Ruhl has so beautifully captured in this play: the breath that we take between laughter and tears.

Most of us could use a good comedy about the human condition right about now.

Rebelo: Oh my goodness. It's a bit of a painful time for many of us right now, isn't it? And quite often, we hear the laughter in the audience as a relief. It's not a laugh out of distraction, but a laugh out of recognition. Perhaps more than ever, we should be present together and share some of that.

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