Matilde (Villegas) is a cleaner who would rather be a comedian. Her mother died while laughing with her father, and he subsequently shot himself. So she leaves Brazil in search of the perfect joke, even though she fears that when she finds it, it will kill her.
Although the premise is a bit whimsical, it is also rather intriguing. Matilde believes deeply in the power of laughter to disrupt the banalities of life. When she finds herself working for the ambitious doctor Lane (Leahy), and in cahoots with her equally neurotic sister Virginia (Clancy), she has her work cut out.
When Lane’s husband Charles (Hogan) falls in love with Ana (Lindsay), a patient on whom he performs a mastectomy, Matilde’s humour becomes all the more important in managing the tension. Further, it succeeds in bringing all the women together to aid each other, somewhat fulfilling the optimistic protagonist’s earlier prophesy that “If more women knew more jokes then there would be more justice in the world.” This feminist tract is emphasised further when Charles resorts to heroics to save his lover’s life, and the women respond with care and affection.
The acting is generally good, although the performances do better to animate the comic elements of Ruhl’s script than its subtler, more emotive components. So, while Villegas gives us a charming Matilde, and Clancy a witty sister in Virginia, no one quite manages to counterpoint the fun with a gravity befitting the cancer storyline, or to render credible the rapid solidification of sisterhood. While the director could have modulated the tone more effectively, the stage design presents its own obstacles. When the sophisticated Ana curls up to die on a ramshackle bench in her supposedly wealthy friend’s house, any potential for poignancy is sacrificed. Also, the play is largely performed as realism, and when Matilde finally composes the perfect joke to release Ana from her terminal illness, the sudden death feels a bit cold.
Obviously this recently formed company (November 2008) is operating with a low budget, but the set is distractingly shabby. The net curtain which drapes across the back wall is simply ugly, and it is an eyesore included in every scene, even when we are supposedly outside. Similarly, apples bedeck the space even after the apple picking is over. This might sound petty, but with such limited playing space, it is very easy to disrupt the audience’s focus. And as a rule of thumb, when it comes to stage design in the New Theatre, less is always more.
Strangely enough, apart from being credited as author, Sara Ruhl doesn’t get much of a mention in the programme note, even though everyone else, including the ‘prop buyer,’ has a bio. This might fly if it did not feel like there was more to Ruhl for the company yet to discover.
Fintan Walsh is a Research Fellow in Trinity College Dublin.