Friday, September 20, 2002

Those who enjoyed "The Vagina Monologues" may enjoy Hilary Wright's comic melodrama about the vibrator. The cast includes, from left, Lani Hanson, Emma Palumbo and Allyson Wood.

Droll, low-voltage
sexual politics

By John Berger

It's quiz time! Which of the following modern household conveniences was invented first:

1) The electric iron.
2) The vacuum cleaner.
3) A vibrating electronic device developed for use by doctors in the treatment of "hysteric" female patients.

If you picked number 3 as your answer, not only are you a winner, but also someone likely to enjoy Hilary Wright's ambitious look at the history of the ever-popular "medical" device, "Hysteria: A Short History of the Vibrator." Wright wrote "Hysteria" in partial fulfillment of the requirements for an MFA in playwriting.

Director Jennifer Goodlander is bringing it to life as a melodrama with women playing the male roles. "Two of the characters are male and two are female," she said, explaining that her decision to cast women in the male roles allowed her to explore the possibilities of dramatic stylization while working towards her MFA in Asian directing.

Although the general approach is campy, and the title a guaranteed attention-getter, Goodlander says that "Hysteria" also explores such serious issues as how Americans choose to define sex solely as a physical act and the perceptions of female sexual empowerment.

"This show not only does that, but really works for empowering both of the couples in the play, both parts of a relationship to understand their sexuality and be more proactive about it," she said. Goodlander even suggested that the show might be a great ice-breaker in getting couples to communicate about the physical and emotional aspects of their own relationships.

"It's really funny, it's very campy (and) it's about an hour long, so it's perfect for a late night audience," she said. "'The Vagina Monologues' at UH had been so successful that we thought that there's definitely an audience wanting to see stuff like this, so let's tap into it."

Although Goodlander sees a similarity between "Hysteria" and "Monologues" in dealing with the basic issue of women's sexuality, she says it's "not as feminist" as Eve Ensler's popular performance piece.

"('Hysteria') brings some interesting issues of sexuality to the table without offering any definite answers as to what's right or wrong. The focus of the play is trying to bring the characters together both sexually and in intimacy ... One of the big things the play looks at is how we can bring each other closer, and understanding ourselves sexually is one of the basic ways we can do that."

We pause now for a history lesson: It was standard medical doctrine a century ago that women were thought inherently prone to hysteria because they were considered the weaker sex. Doctors (male, of course) routinely treated such "hysteric" women for this condition by massaging their, er, nether regions, sometimes on a weekly basis. Such treatments could be time-consuming, and many financially astute members of the medical profession therefore welcomed the development of a modern electronic device that would accelerate the treatment process and allow them to treat (and bill) more patients.

It would seem odd, from our contemporary perspective, that such treatment wasn't considered sexual.

"Women's sexuality only existed in the context of a phallus so, without it, (the treatment) couldn't possibly be sex, and it couldn't possibly be threatening to their decency or the doctors' decency. It was just a treatment," Goodlander said.

The vibrator soon moved out of the clinic and became available for home use in the claimed treatment or prevention of any number of other maladies. Goodlander says that vibrators were once openly sold in department stores until they gradually acquired an erotic cachet and were then no longer considered suitable for public display and sale. Vibrators emerged from the shadows maybe 40 years ago, but generally remain the topic of risqué jokes and potential embarrassment, like the one actual incident about the woman whose luggage was opened by male airport security personnel investigating a mysterious buzzing noise and ...

Anyway, according to the play's press, expect a "comic romp about sexual politics, the influence of capitalism and the history of sex toys" -- plus the audience will help decide the ending of the play. Will it be thumbs up or thumbs down for the vibrator?

'Hysteria: A Short History of the Vibrator'

Where: Ernst Lab Theatre, UH-Manoa
When: 10:30 p.m. tomorrow and 8 p.m. Sunday, plus 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 27 and 28
Tickets: $7; $6 for seniors, military, UH faculty and staff, and non-UH-Manoa students; $3 for UH-Manoa students w/valid Fall '02 photo ID, available at the box office one hour before showtime
Call: 956-7655

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