In a studio somewhere in New York City, artist Flint Weisser just put the finishing touches on the two intricate machines he spent six weeks constructing. They are made of hand-fashioned brass, hardwoods, aluminum and stainless steel. Recently his creations were boxed up and sent via the U.S. Postal Service to Boise in care of Alley Repertory Theater.
The machines are replicas of one of the very first household appliances widely marketed in the United States. Hailed by Sears Roebuck and Co. in a 1918 advertisement as "very useful and satisfactory for home service," these machines are not irons or vacuums, they are vibrators.
Weisser, a Boise State graduate who moved to New York to study at the Pratt Institute, was commissioned to make the pieces for Alley Repertory's upcoming production of In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play.
Artistic Director Buffie Main said the "delightfully funny and entertaining play" was chosen to anchor Alley Repertory's Spark Series, which is centered on the power of electricity and invention. Written by Sarah Ruhl, the play is a Tony Award-winner and was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
In the Next Room is staged in America at the dawn of the electrical age. Thomas Edison had recently developed the light bulb, and because of it, the prevailing puritanically minded culture was witnessing drastic changes to daily life. The play is centered on the relationship between Dr. Givings--a physician fascinated with extraordinary new devices (enter Weisser's creations) that help him treat patients suffering from "hysteria"--and his curious wife Catherine, a bystander in her husband's world.
The first vibrators were invented to assist physicians in the treatment of hysteria, a diagnosis often given to unmarried women, or women without children such as nuns and spinsters. Hysteria's symptoms included anything from nervousness to depression. However, Main said the prevailing description of the time was that of a "dry or heavy womb."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these symptoms were often attributed to sexual deprivation and were treated by inducing what was termed a "hysterical paroxysm." Happily, for physicians, the invention of the vibrator made quick work of a treatment previously performed by hand, which often took hours to achieve a proper result.
Weisser said two historical models, the Carpenter and the Chattanooga, inspired the vibrators he created. Weisser found and refurbished actual period engines for the pieces. He described the originals as "beautiful" hair dryer-esque machines that were designed like modern Dremel tools with flexible shafts attached to the ends. The boxes, holding the rather large motors by today's appliance standards, looked more like furniture than machines, complete with ornately carved legs and claw feet.
The work Weisser has done for the play is actually right up his alley as well. His current artistic focus is to use the scientific experience as a design experience. He said he enjoys showing "art nerds" the beauty and inherent aesthetic experience involved with machinery. He said he also likes creating new works inspired by intricately based Victorian concepts.
Happily, one of Weisser's vibrators actually vibrates. He said it is "loud, scary and kind of great" and will hopefully be used functionally on the set. The other, he said, has a tendency to smoke, smelling as if it may catch fire.
Main said she knew the play "would be great for Alley and really interesting to do" because it explores issues of women's health, a topic she said is rarely presented on stage. She hailed the skill of the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, and her ability to use a comedic lens to explore such a complex topic.
"Often, we talk about sex and make it bawdy, but don't make it about intimacy and discovery," Main said. "The play really centers on women feeling left out and how they find voice through sexuality and exploration ... releasing their hysteria."
Interestingly, Main said the eventual extinction of the hysteria diagnosis in women coincided very closely with the historical timeline for women's emancipation.
Main shares Dr. Givings' interest in the marvels of technological advancement. She explained that there is a distinct correlation between the manner in which electricity changed life in the early 1900s and the way cell phones have changed ours today.
"It is fascinating historically [the way one advancement in technology] transforms the world in just a couple of years," she said.
Main said set designers and local talents Sarah Cunningham and Keith Hazen-Diehm have figured out how to intelligently juxtapose a lush Victorian set with the play's rather industrial venue, Visual Arts Collective in Garden City. From the mysterious new glow of electricity within wall papered chambers, to loud machines and the sounds of hysterical paroxysm, this is one play that's sure to get people buzzing.
"I just love to see how it all comes together,"' Main added.