The Billings Outpost

‘Vibrator Play’ sends charge through audience

THEATER REVIEW

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

Venture Theatre could scarcely have made a better choice for its annual Rankin File production. Named for noted Montana politician Jeanette Rankin, the annual production focuses on women and women’s issues.

This year’s play, “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play,” by Sarah Ruhl, touched on a range of issues in ways that occasionally brought gasps from some members of the audience. The men are so clueless, the women have so much to learn, the future is so promising.

The story is simple enough. A 19th century doctor (Blaine Jensen) has found a way to treat “hysteria” in women by applying a vibrating electrical charge to their private parts, causing a “paroxysm” that relieves “congestion in the womb.” Women are first terrified, then horrified, then, well, can’t get enough of it.

It all sounds like farce, and for much of the first act it is. Men and women seem not to live just on different planets but in different galaxies.

They aren’t exploring their sexuality; they are only vaguely even aware of it. When one character asks, “What is onanism?” another replies, “I’m relieved that you do not know.”

One of the funniest scenes is when the women laugh at the absurd suggestion that they feeling they get from the vibrator may be similar to the feeling they get from “relations” with their husbands.

Things get more serious toward the end of the play, even as the relations between characters get more complicated. The doctor’s wife (Catherine Bergman) is attracted to a patient’s husband; a female patient (Joanna Johnson) is attracted to the doctor’s female assistant (Renee Sobering); a male patient (Jared Siess, in a scene-stealing role) is attracted to just about anything in a dress.

As the various combinations are sorted out, the characters reflect on their lives, their babies, their place in the world. “A good mother has a fat child,” says the doctor’s wife, whose milk is inadequate for her own baby and has to hire a wet nurse (Jazzmin Hernandez) who has just lost a child of her own (“A mother of two cannot die of sorrow,” she notes, sorrowfully).

The play, capably directed by Sarah Butts, almost turns preachy by the end, but a series of plot twists keeps things from getting too serious.

Besides, there is always the entertainment of repeated scenes in which women take their clothes off. It’s nothing salacious; Victorian women wore more undergarments than I know names for, and even in their skimpiest underthings they are dressed from neck to ankle.

Ms. Johnson and Ms. Bergman, as the two main women characters, deserve special mention. Their roles require both comedic and dramatic talents, and both offer plenty.

An interesting design feature is that the walls of the two-room set are lined with picture frames, but all of the frames are empty – except one. Thomas Edison, the electrical genius, stares balefully from that one.

Edison’s inventions have created a brave new world. In this play, the characters are only dimly aware of its implications, but they are definitely looking forward to the ride.

“In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” plays weekends through May 26 at Venture Theatre.

 

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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