Friday, September 27, 2002

Kennedy Theatre presents a comic historical view of the development of the vibrator.

‘Hysterical’ gets in
last sex laughs

Review by John Berger

The funniest show on stage this weekend is a treat reserved for mature night owls only as "Hysterical: A Short History of the Vibrator" closes with performances at 10:30 tonight and tomorrow in the University of Hawaii Ernst Lab Theatre.

The late start time is reminiscent of the days when TV programs with "adult" content were considered "late night" entertainment, but anyone with a sense of humor and an interest in male-female relations will find this gem of a play worth seeing.

The title is a guaranteed attention-getter in the style of Eve Ensler's popular "The Vagina Monologues," but playwright Hilary Wright and director Jennifer Goodlander back up the title with an entertaining look at evolving perceptions of female sexual desires.

There is also significant subtext about the problematic dynamics that can exist between male doctors and female patients when gynecological matters are involved.

The use of women in male roles adds an interesting visual dimension to the piece. Allyson Wood (Foster) and Emma Palumbo (Charles) quickly establish themselves through body language as "males" opposite feminine Andrea Caron (Frances) and Lani Hansen (Nellie).

"FOSTER" IS THE name assigned to the unknown English doctor who invented an electromechanical device for treating female "hysteria" in the 1880s. It was accepted medical doctrine at the time that women were prone to that malady, and doctors -- male, of course -- routinely provided "manual therapy" that gave the "hysterical" women temporary relief.

American males of the 21st century might regard providing such treatment as a Hugh Hefner fantasy, but for Foster, a successful 19th-century London gynecologist, it was a tedious way to make a living. No two patients are the same, treatments took a long time, and by day's end he suffered from sore muscles and "squishy" fingers.

Foster and his obstetrician friend Charles agree that a device could be developed to reduce treatment time. After several comical false starts, Foster perfects a device, and Charles switches his practice to gynecology to reap a share of riches.

Goodlander's emphasis on campy melodrama seems especially appropriate when looking back at a time when bicycle riding and fast trains were viewed as potential threats to women's "purity," but she and Wright deftly included a thought-provoking parallel story to illustrate the importance of communication between the sexes.

FOSTER MIGHT BE considered a prude even when judged by Victorian England ideals, defining sex as mere patriotic duty. (The empire needs soldiers and women to bear future soldiers.) The idea of a woman enjoying her wifely "duty to England" is unfathomable to him. The notion that his performance of his duty might be lacking is unimaginable. Although he spends his days treating women for hysteria, he can't bring himself to discuss sexual matters with his wife.

He can't understand why Nellie refuses to take off her clothes and serve as a guinea pig when he and Charles want to test one of their prototype devices. Charles is just another doctor, isn't he?

Nellie's curiosity about the invention is piqued when Frances, a friend who is one of Foster's patients, confides that her "treatments" are more invigorating and satisfying than any encounter with her husband. Foster is appalled that his pure and virtuous wife would ask to try the machine. She certainly isn't suffering from hysteria!

Goodlander's pacing doesn't squander a moment as Nellie learns to express herself and Foster learns about his wife.

Wood is excellent as the uptight Foster, first in her success at assuming a male persona, then in subtly showing us Foster's awareness of how little he knows about his wife. Wood is hidden behind masklike makeup, but she nevertheless succeeds in conveying emotion. A scene in which Foster finally, haltingly, attempts to discuss sexual matters with Nellie is particularly well done.

Hansen is an instant favorite as the loyal but sexually suppressed wife. Hansen always maintains a sense of poignancy, and her animated features never fail to add another facet to her performance.

Palumbo, broad and stocky where Wood is tall and slender, is a perfect visual counterpoint to Wood. Palumbo's portrayal of Foster's bawdy colleague is broad and well played as well. Palumbo plays the lascivious doctor to great comic effect.

Caron completes the quartet as Nellie's outspoken friend and confidant. She is also the primary narrator who opens the show by establishing the social milieu and takes the lead in filling in the subsequent history of the medical device after it became available for purchase for home use around the dawn of the 20th century.

"Hysterical: A Short History of the Vibrator"

At Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawaii, 10:30 p.m. today and tomorrow.
Tickets $7 general; $6 for seniors, military, UH faculty and staff, and non-UH students; $3 for UH students. Call 956-7655.

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