Theatre Erindale appropriately opened their third mainstage show of the season on Valentine’s Day. In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Samantha Wilson, is a show that explores a slew of sexual and romantic experiences in all their complexity. The show concerns the early history of the vibrator—when doctors allegedly used it as a clinical device to bring women to orgasm as treatment for hysteria. Hysteria was believed to be a disorder that almost exclusively affected women. Women experiencing symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, depression, irritability, fainting etc. were diagnosed with the disorder. Although many of these symptoms were caused by societal pressures, social and physical constrictions, and trauma or mistreatment, women’s bodies alone were blamed for these maladies. The show is set in the home and operating theatre of Dr. Givings. As Givings treats patients who express symptoms of hysteria, his wife, Mrs. Givings, who is struggling to deal with her inability to breast feed, becomes more curious about her husband’s practice and questions whether his “machine” might help her as well.
A show about the supposed history of the vibrator sounds risqué, and in a way, it is. It deals very frankly with the experiences women have with their bodies socially, sexually and maternally, and as the title suggests, the audience witnesses multiple characters having orgasms with help from an old-fashioned vibrator. However, this production is in no way vulgar. Instead, it draws attention to the limits society has placed on women to understand and control their own bodies. Mrs. Givings (Karen Scora) and Mrs. Daldry (Marissa Orjalo) are portrayed with innocence and naivete. Although both are married women who have had sex, neither recognize that sexual pleasure is possible until they are introduced to Dr. Givings’ “machine.” Though the scenes are sexual, they aren’t erotic. Instead, they end up being moving, often humorous and in some moments, heartbreaking. Orjalo’s performance was brave and venerable, and truly embodied the journey of discovering one’s self and one’s sexuality. Scora showed range in both her expressions of desperation and curiosity, breaking down both the pains and joys of being a mother and a wife.
One of the strengths of this production is its dedicated portrayal of such varied and contrasting experiences among its characters. As much as the play is about woman exploring their own bodies and sexualities, Jacobe Rutigliano’s portrayal of Dr. Givings draws attention to male sexual insecurity. Although the other male characters in the play have no qualms about discussing emotional passion or sexual desire, Givings is just as, if not more, sexually repressed as the women he treats. His sincerity and naivete contrasts Myles Bottens’ boldly bombastic Mr. Daldry, and the expressiveness and wit of Mackenzie Burton’s Leo.
Elizabeth, played by Aria Sharma, is a woman of color placed in service of the Givings’ as a wet nurse. Sharma’s portrayal of Elizabeth complicates the oppression Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry experience, for although the two women are existing under societal restraints, they carry more status and agency but less maturity than Elizabeth. Dr. Givings, who is very conscientious about giving white women privacy, denies Elizabeth the same courtesy. Her body is treated as a tool, and the loss of her child is used to convenience those who dehumanize her. Sharma plays Elizabeth with stoic dignity, but she keeps her character’s pain and frustration tucked just below the surface. Her performance is a constant reminder of the varied experiences of women across race and class lines.
Saskia Muller gave a beautiful performance as Annie, an educated, unmarried, working woman who assists Dr. Givings with his medical work. At first, she comes across as practical and dry but as the play progresses she slowly reveals the passion that is hiding below the surface. Her performance was subtle yet impactful.
The Vibrator Play is as hysterical as it is moving. The cast portrayed the complexity of the subject matter with heart, conviction and depth, while also offering levity and humour when needed. It’s a show that pushes boundaries in an incisive way and opens up opportunities for frank open discussion about sexuality.
In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play runs at the MiST Theatre from February 14 to March 3.
This article has been corrected.
- February 25, 2019 at 5 a.m.: “n the Next Room: a frank portrayal of female” was changed to “In the Next Room: a frank portrayal of female sexuality”