Asexual Healing

Asexual Healing

Theater Review
In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play
By Sarah Ruhl
Presented by Repertory Philippines
April 7 to 23, with 8 p.m. performances on Fridays to Sundays, and 3:30 p.m. shows on Saturdays and Sundays.
There are no performances on Holy Week.
Onstage Theater, Greenbelt Mall 1, Paseo de Roxas St., Makati City

By Sujata Mukhi

I really should stop reacting to my own perceptions of things. Just based on the title, not knowing anything about this third offering in Repertory Philippines’ 80th season, I thought this was going to be a period farce featuring a cast of philandering partners playing musical beds. In the next room. Using a vibrator. While navigating the hoop skirt or crinoline, and undressing layers and layers of underthings. Imagine the imagery in my mind, and maybe you would be enticed to watch that play instead.

Asexual Healing
Caisa Borromeo, Tami Monsod, and Joshua Spafford in a scene from Repertory Philippines’ In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play.

You would understandably get thrown off by how the play is marketed. Just like my opening paragraph, audiences may be teased into thinking it’s a sexual comedy of erotic errors and watch it with the expectation of being titillated. The synopsis in the program notes, directly quoting a Wikipedia entry, gives the impression that it’s a wanton search for the joy of sex by desperate Victorian housewives

There’s the rub — pardon the pun that is not intended to be lascivious. There was nothing sexual in scene after scene women were genitally stimulated by a rather terrifying looking dildo prototype until they reached what was called a “hysterical paroxysm,” aka climax, aka orgasm in today’s language. It was clinical, it was medical, it was asexual.

But the play itself, presented with so much love by a very courageous cast, was far from clinical, far from medical. At its heart, it is a story about love and intimacy unfolding, but in a rather unorthodox way, framed within the context of the politics of sexual expression and repression.

Inspired by American historian Rachel Maine’s research entitled The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, playwright Sarah Ruhl interweaves quite remarkably the themes of technological and sexual liberation, and the consequences thereof. The play is set on the cusp of the 20th century. Gas lit lamps have started to be replaced by electrical incandescent bulbs, and electricity now powers the home.

Dr. Givings (the spot-on Joshua Spafford) is very pleased with his latest invention: an elongated instrument that vibrates when powered electrically. He uses the instrument to cure “hysteria,” the catchall word describing women’s symptoms that ranged from nervous disorders, insomnia, fainting, or what could have been interpreted as sexual immodesty. With the assistance of Nurse Annie (the incredible, understated Tami Monsod), Dr. Givings looks away as he instructs his clients to undress, lie on the clinic bed, and cover their private parts with a sheet. With supreme professionalism and efficiency, Dr. Givings gives his treatment which involves inserting (?) or moving his gadget around his patient’s clitoris, maybe vulva, until muscular contractions, or a paroxysm, are induced. If the machine for some reason doesn’t work, he instructs Nurse Annie to administer manual stimulation. All under the sheets of course, as the audience gets no peep show.

Okaaaay. What’s the rating of this play again? (Repertory Philippines is adamant that it is for adults only. — Ed.) But never mind that. At this point I’m laughing and agog all at the same time, as I can’t get over the utter naturalness of how Caisa Borromeo, who plays Dr. Givings’ client Mrs. Sabrina Daldry, gives in to her character’s first orgasm. Mrs. Daldry is initially brought to Dr. Givings for treatment by her husband Mr. Daldry (Hans Eckstein) as she suffers from fatigue and anxiety. No one, including Dr. Givings’ wife Catherine (Giannina Ocampo) seems to know what the treatments consist of, which happen in the clinic adjacent to the Givings’ drawing room. Neither does Mrs. Daldry reveal what she has been experiencing.

As Mrs. Daldry looks for more treatment sessions, transforming to a confident, outspoken woman in the process, Catherine becomes more and more curious about what goes on in the next room, hearing strange but alluring moans through the door. A new mother, Catherine is frustrated that her baby refuses to suckle from her, is generally dissatisfied with her life, and yearns for attention and intimacy from her husband who spends more time in the clinic and with friends at the club. Mrs. Daldry suggests Catherine employ the services of her colored servant Elizabeth (Cara Barredo) as a wet nurse, whose own baby was still-born. The introduction of Elizabeth into the Catherine’s life makes Catherine confront her own limitations as the baby easily takes to Elizabeth’s nursing. Elizabeth on the other hand is forced to face her repressed grief at losing her own child, and develops a maternal attachment to the white woman’s baby.

Repression and expression are the undercurrent of the play. Leo the artist (Jef Flores), also a client of Dr. Givings, is unabashed in his free love for all women, and flirts with Catherine. With deep feelings stirred, she summons the courage to break the barrier and open the door to the next room to see for herself what panacea lies therein, and Mrs. Daldry, her partner-in-crime, helps her experience her very first paroxysm/orgasm. Ever.

The beauty of the play is how the tone never gives in to mockery or exaggeration. There is a deep compassion for the needs of these women, trapped by the demands and expectations of the times. Just as interesting is the view of sexual release as a healing modality, independent of this release being in the context of a relationship or encounter with another person. Release for its own sake, without the trappings of morality and judgment. This very much reminds me of the English movie Bliss (no, not the current controversial Tagalog film) where a married woman, unable to orgasm, seeks the help of a sex therapist to help her unlock deep dark secrets stored in her somatic memory. Esoteric eastern spiritual practices also seek to channel pure sexual energy as a link to the divine, which may or may not include another person.

But that is the interesting contrast between Mrs. Daldry and Catherine. Mrs. Daldry is content with the release for its own sake, while Catherine loses interest in it if it’s not accompanied by love, intimacy, and companionship. 

Just a marvelous is the transformation of Dr. Givings. The treatments he gives women are purely objective and clinical, and there is no association of their experiences with sexual activity. In the same way, sex with his wife is devoid of intimacy, and female orgasm in that setting is unheard of. But his jealousy and passion are roused when Catherine tells him she is attracted to Leo, and later, in a truly touching scene, he caresses Catherine sweetly and earnestly and uses the language closest to intimacy that he knows, by naming each part in anatomical terms. Some audience members laughed and tittered, but I found it very moving.

And that cast. That truly giving cast! Joshua Spafford has chosen a great vehicle for his return to Philippine stage, and we truly hope to see more of him (no pun intended! Watch the play and you’ll know why I say this!) He had the perfect carriage of a Victorian gentleman. Ms. Borromeo’s shift from an hysteric to a self-possessed woman was compelling, and the changing quality of her rendition of orgasms, scene after scene, were sights and sounds to behold. Tami Monsod, who I think is one of the best actors on the Philippine stage, says so much with so little. A look, a gesture, a bit of stage business, is all it takes to feel her intensity. Giannina Ocampo has an even wider room for transformation, and delivers effectively. Cara Barredo smoldered with repressed anger, and Hans Eckstein, who clearly stood out recently as the butler in Annie, tightened the ensemble. The flamboyance of the gorgeous Jef Flores as the artist Leo just felt a little forced, but you have to give it to the man for being willing to bend over and pretend to be impaled. Once again the vibrator to the rescue.

The set was detailed, and someone mentioned it was a throwback to the good old days when realistic box sets were the hallmark of Rep productions. It was split into two areas, with the clinic on one side and the drawing room on the other, and there would be times you would see actions take place simultaneously that reflected opposing undertones. While Dr. Givings was getting ready to administer treatment clinically on one side, restlessness and stirred emotions were expressed on the other side. It didn’t matter if your attention would be split, a kind of integration takes place as you watch.

Under Chris Millado’s direction (his plays are fast becoming some of my favorites to watch), the whole is so much more than the fractured parts. He is sensitive to the vulnerabilities of his actors, and gradually peels off the layers, very similar to how the ladies’ clothes and underthings are meticulously and expertly removed. (I understand that actors had days and days of practice to just get that process right. And it looked seamless.) Mention must be made of the excellent costume designer Bonsai Cielo and set designer Mio Infante for the realism.

You may avoid The Vibrator Play if you don’t want to ruffle your sensibilities, or you may want to watch it to titillate them. But the end moved me to tears at the innocence of re-discovery, and the re-awakening of tender passion. And it is all good.

Tickets cost P836 and P1,045 and are available at TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph) and at the gate.

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