Rep’s ‘The Vibrator Play’ promises to cure your hysteria

You know how sometimes, in romantic comedies, the setting (one guess: New York City) often becomes an active character in itself? In Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), this privilege is bequeathed to the title “character,” the vibrator — or, as it is referred to within the play, “the machine.”

Different stagings of Ruhl’s play have each taken their own creative liberties when it comes to the look of the machine. In Repertory Philippines’ production, which opened on March 24, it looks as though it had been improvised from a number of household items. This is a deliberate decision by the art department. It aims to highlight a character’s penchant for invention, tinkering, and the wonders of electricity, which were new and un- familiar in the 1880s, during which the play is set.

The Vibrator Play centers on a couple: Dr. Givings, a Mr. Darcy-esque man of science who is perhaps too analytical for his own good, and his wife Catherine, a free-spirited woman frustrated with her looming loneliness in her own home, her lack of intimacy with her husband, and her inability to nurse her newborn baby. Dr. Givings tends to patients suffering from “hysteria” — an illness thought to result in dizziness, sensitivity to light and sound, anxiety, and depression — using his homemade machine, which provides relief in the form of, well, sexual pleasure. The ever-curious Catherine and Sabrina Daldry, a frequent patient, both experience their first orgasms using the machine, and such discoveries lead them on the path to self-actualization and liberation.

Major throwback: The play is set in the 1880s, when invention and tinkering were new and unfamiliar.

Directed by Chris Millado, Rep’s version is mostly faithful to Sarah Ruhl’s writing — with the exception of the characters’ reactions to their climaxes. These put When Harry Met Sally to shame and, according to Millado, are “all their own,” referring to the actors.

Hilarious and unabashedly human, The Vibrator Play is a triumphant commentary on female sexuality, motherhood and grief, the intricacies of marriage, and even our (over)dependence on technology. With magnetic performances from its cast, led by returning Rep veterans Joshua Spafford and Giannina Ocampo, this particular production is a delightful jaunt that’s somehow able to inspire awe from two sides. There’s the exhilaration you feel with the actors, who seem to be having the time of their lives on that stage. And there’s the heartache and joy you experience with the characters, who all come to terms with some sort of truth about themselves and their world by the time the curtains close.

In one scene, Catherine poses a riddle to the bohemian artist Leo Irving, another patient of hysteria: What is the one thing that is able to kill you as well as bring you to life? Leo’s answer is love, but according to Catherine, it’s electricity. However, as actor Jef Flores (who plays Leo) observes in that spectacular and poignant final scene, there’s nothing electric about what’s occurring between Dr. Givings and Catherine, unless you count the metaphorical kind that makes us all weak in the knees. As with the riddle itself, we can take what we will from that.

The Vibrator Play, presented by Repertory Philippines, will run until April 23, 2017 at the Onstage Theater, located at 2F Greenbelt 1. Tickets are available via TicketWorld.

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