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Get your Giggle On at the Vibrator Play

Running through X at Visual Arts Collective

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Somewhere between the historical examination of women as pets in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and the fake-orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally, you'll find In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl, now at Visual Arts Collective.

The story digs into the once-ubiquitous but now defunct medical diagnosis of "hysteria," a collection of unrelated symptoms attributed to problems with the womb that was treated by doctors giving their patients hand jobs. But once electricity came along, they were able to use vibrators.

In the play, the miserably cooped-up trophy-wife of just such a doctor, Catherine Givings, hears him treating his patients through the walls and tries to befriend his patients to weasel the deets out of them. But as the polite conversation of the late 1800s was not rich with words like "orgasm" or "masturbation," or even the concept of female sexual fulfillment, it becomes more of a variety of related sensations like "hot feet."

The Vibrator Play is very, very funny. And it's not just the persistent giggles from watching the characters constantly jerking off one another with clinically straight faces while conversations about how hard it is to paint hands are happening on the other side of the stage. The dialogue is snappy and there isn't a weak link in the cast, though Carly Oppie is especially good in the role of Catherine. Her irrepressible bubbliness and vast library of odd facial expressions moves her from Hedda Gabler-esque misery toward the giddy sadness of Harper Pitt from Angels in America.

But at the same time, it is a topic that shouldn't be funny. The subject matter isn't just a quirky look at a historical oddity--it's a scathing condemnation of the manner in which women were, in large part, treated as pets or breeding stock. And moreover, when it comes to contemporary political discussions about women's health care, it's a mindset that is sadly not entirely history.

What saves it from being tragic is the deadpan sincerity of the doctor, played excellently by Curtis Ransom. Not only does he sincerely believe he is helping women by feeling them up, his callousness to his wife isn't out of maliciousness but fear of intimacy. And that makes Catherine's eventual breakthrough to him almost a larger metaphor for society's collective fear to honestly assess the needs and desires of women.

Though approximately 40 percent of the play involves watching actors portray masturbation of one form or another, Alley Rep's Production of In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play is an immensely entertaining mediation on medical history and gender roles that raises questions society still needs to ask itself more than 100 years after the play is set.

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