BareStage’s newest play tackles history of vibrator, fills audience with laughter, pleasure

Vibrator
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That buzzing you’re hearing isn’t your cellphone — or at least it shouldn’t be, because it would be rude to leave your phone on during a play. It’s a prop vibrator in BareStage’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated “In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play).”

Long before the time of rabbits, G-Swirls and Hitatchi Magic Wands, there was the Chattanooga: a steam-powered vibrator used by doctors to treat women’s “hysteria.”

As early as the Victorian era, medical professionals used these vibrators to induce paroxysms — orgasms that would hypothetically release the build-up of fluids in the womb — to cure patients’ psychological instability. Indeed, though it is contemporarily used as an instrument of pleasure, the vibrator has a rather not-so-sexy past.

The cast and crew of “In The Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play)” transform a particular era of women’s subjugation into a poignant, endearing and humorous production. The play starts with Dr. Givings (James Lewis), who obsesses over patient care and the future of hysteria treatment. Meanwhile, his wife, Mrs. Givings (Annie Clark), must cope with the loneliness of living beside a man whose first love is science.

After eavesdropping in on a paroxysm, Mrs. Givings becomes curious as to what her husband’s treatment entails. Bored and alone with her small, domestic life, she develops a friendship with not only her husband’s patient, Mrs. Daldry (Rebecca Ferrer), but also her own body and female identity.

The play’s actors re-enact sexual climax, with Ferrer alone acting out six unique paroxysms throughout the play — she could definitely give Meg Ryan a run for her money. Indeed, it is as if she isn’t performing for a crowd and is instead tapping into a moment that is about more than just a climax.

“Someone in production Snapchatted one of the paroxysms and I was like, ‘Oh that’s what it sounds like?’ ” Ferrer said in an interview with The Daily Californian. With each passing orgasm, her character garners more agency and more control over her sexual experience.

Ferrer is just one of many characters whose relationships and curiosities grow like wildfire with each experience. Across the board, it is apparent that interpersonal relationships intensify as characters toss aside their fears of individual sexual exploration.

“Sarah Ruhl is brilliant (for setting) the play in this time period because it’s here that these (sexual) barriers are starting to break down,” said director Grace Lynch.

As the play progresses, we witness characters such as Mrs. Daldry engaging with female counterparts who are also dealing with repression and stagnation.

But it isn’t just a play for the ladies. “In The Next Room” reveals the idiosyncrasies of paroxysm treatments — for example, that homophobia is an extension of misogyny — with the character of Leo Irving (Zachary Brown).

Irving is one of Dr. Givings’ atypical hysteria patients. Although he is a heterosexual male, Dr. Givings considers his identity as a European artist to be feminine. Thus, he is diagnosed with an unsound mental state.

Brown’s performances of paroxysms are so explosive and unfiltered that he easily becomes a crowd favorite. Casting obviously made a perfect choice, as he has a knack for reeling viewers back in after the intermission.

In the second act, Brown lays curled up on an examination table. There is a moment where we are taken aback while realizing that Dr. Givings has now invented an anal vibrator (!) to stimulate the prostate. Before viewers can fully process what is about to go down, Brown is writhing around, moaning in shocked delight.  His doe-eyed expressions of ecstasy and squealing orgasms are not only uproarious but also incredibly charming.

Clark also delivers a crowd-pleasing performance seasoned with perfectly timed punchlines. She brings depth to her character with relatable depictions of insecurity, jealousy and curiosity as she explores her relationship with herself and other women while still maintaining a biting humor and quick wit.

Ultimately, in “In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play),” sincerity and hysterical laughter come as easily as the play’s leading cast.

“In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play)” will be running until March 15. 

Contact Jeila Saidi at [email protected]g