Arts & Culture

‘Vibrator Play’ presents uncensored peek into female sexuality

The play, written by an alum and directed by a senior, examines Victorian conventions

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 18, 2013

Welcome to the operating theater. When you’re finished undressing, please lie down on the table and open your legs. In a matter of minutes, you will experience one of the miracles of modern science.

For the characters of “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” written by Sarah Ruhl ’97 MFA ’01 and directed by Karin Nilo ’14, this cold, clinical setting catapults its patients out of the confines of Victorian society. In an age when sexuality meant a woman’s conjugal duty to her husband, hysteria served as a catchall diagnosis for symptoms of female distress.

In the play, Mr. Givings, a devoted apostle of Thomas Edison, becomes one of the first doctors to employ an experimental treatment for hysteria: the application of a large vibration machine which, when applied liberally for several minutes, induces a muscle-contracting, deity-invoking “paroxysm.” The operating theater, often ascribed the Victorian euphemism of “the next room,” is boxed off from the rest of the set design by a screen.

“I didn’t want (these) to be cliches of what people think an orgasm is supposed to be like,” Nilo said, adding that she conducted “intimacy exercises” with the actors to familiarize them with typical bodily shapes and breathing patterns.

“You have to remember that this was a time before pornography shaped these stereotypes, so these women’s reactions would have been very natural and organic,” she said.

Though the patients’ paroxysms are at times pivotal turning points for characters, in other contexts they seem unnecessary for plot and character development. The excess of treatment sessions interrupts and distracts from the otherwise powerful narrative arc.

While Mr. Givings’ device is wildly successful, his systematic approach to matters of the heart causes friction in his marriage with the more romantic and irrational Mrs. Givings.

Frustrated by her husband’s refusal to discuss the treatment, she befriends Mrs. Daldry, one of his patients. Together, they seek to unravel the source and meaning of these mysterious and intense sensations.

Mrs. Givings’ inability to produce enough milk to feed her newborn — and her jealousy toward the wet nurse she hires — overwhelm her with a sense of inadequacy, adding to her tension with her husband.

“She has nothing to do that’s productive or challenging. The only thing she has to lose herself in is nurturing her child, and she’s incompetent even at that,” said Natalie McDonald ’14, who plays Mrs. Givings. “Chronic boredom makes you very aware of your body while your brain suffocates under the weight of it all.”

“This revolves around what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a mother,” Nilo said.

She added that while the play imbeds this duality in a historical setting, the associations between these roles are grounded in social constructs still evident today — such as the cultural taboo surrounding the “perceived indecency” of breastfeeding.

The theme of female sexuality is heavy, especially through the lens of such an oppressive historical context. But the play refuses to be weighed down, construing most of its social commentary through nuanced and intelligently executed satire.

Some of the play’s most satisfying moments are in these understated details — the way Mr. Givings pulls out his pocket watch in amazement at a patient’s lengthy orgasm, the misogynist Mr. Daldry’s snicker at his own transparent innuendo, Mrs. Givings’ pained facial expression when she realizes her social faux pas.

But the pathos of the play, doled out with almost economic precision, grounds the comedy in realism. The gradual exposure of the characters’ vulnerabilities complicates their assumed roles of mother, doctor and invalid. As a result, they become more resonant and human over the course of the play as their personal challenges ultimately transcend the specificity of the era.

Nilo said the screen segregating “the next room” was illuminated with a device called a scrim, which allows for manipulation of the light, shadows and opacity of the screen.

This subtly blurs the reality of what exactly transpires in the next room. Aside from a neat theatrical trick, the detachment and obscurity provided by the screen reflects the estranged relationship between the characters and their sexualities.

But while Nilo said “the next room” is deliberately “hazy and unclear,” she added that the permeability of the set design is meant to convey an “all-encompassing” integration of these two realms.

“Even today, people feel awkward about things that are just part of human nature,” Nilo said. “Part of the reason why I’m doing this is to show that sexuality is just another aspect of ourselves.”

So step into the next room. Make yourself at home. You might just feel something you’ve never felt before.

The play opens tonight at 8 p.m. in the Downspace of the Production Workshop and has additional shows Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. and Oct. 20-21 at 8 p.m.

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