Catching up with reviews of three recent Fresno theater productions:
‘Dear God in His heaven!” she cries, marking the first orgasm in “In the Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play).”
It isn’t the last.
A reader musing on the above line of dialogue might have a number of questions: Under what circumstances does the exuberant moment occur? Considering the small size of the Back Room at The Revue, how close will I be sitting to it? If a writer wants to be true to the character in the play who is exclaiming this sentiment – if a writer (yes, it’s me) wants to express exactly how Mrs. Daldry would punctuate this quotation as the words fly from her mouth – should the “g” in God and “h” in His be uppercase or lowercase?
I’m happy to answer all three:
1. She is using a vibrator. Or, to be more precise, having a vibrator used on her.
2. You could be sitting in the second row, like I was, which I’d estimate was about 8-10 feet from the action.
3. Of course Mrs. Daldry would use a big G and a big H! It’s the late 19th century in upstate New York, for Heaven’s (with a big “H”) sake. She’s a good, churchgoing lady, I’m sure, one who would be proper even in her most intimate moments.
Sara Ruhl’s sharp, witty and insightful play, which I highly recommend (it plays through Saturday, Feb. 19, at The Revue), works because it is so steeped in its setting. People back in the 1890s had a much different awareness of sex and the vocabulary used to describe its intricacies. For that matter, people who graduated from high school in Fresno in the 1940s did not discuss such things as a woman reaching the moment of climax – or so a friend of mine in the audience told me during intermission. She should know because she was there. Women simply didn’t talk about such things.
And that, perhaps, is where “The Vibrator Play” derives its power, along with its whimsy. The play is, at its core, about obliviousness. When you’re totally unaware of a practice or idea – particularly if it’s one that could be considered taboo – then you are free to explore and discover without having a disapproving society stamp your appreciation of it out of you. That’s where the humor arises as well. To think of these Victorian-era ladies innocently crossing the border into the People’s Republic of Masturbation is pretty funny.
But “The Vibrator Play” is more than a mere chance for 21st century sophisticates to laugh and gawk at 19th century rubes stumbling through anatomy lessons. Ruhl has plenty to say to our present time: about the double-standard applied to men and women in terms of enjoying sex; about the way that gender power dynamics still favor the male in the keeping of house and home; about the ways the medical establishment can reinforce archaic customs, such as labeling women “hysterical,” even as it tries to be progressive; even about how the unrelenting march of scientific “progress,” in this case the promise of an increasingly electrified world, can impact a society in unforeseen ways.
Director tony sanders (who doesn’t capitalize his name) is in tune with all this and more, keeping the production and his excellent cast balanced between the explicit and the demure. (Rest assured, while the sounds might be rated R, the visuals are a blurred tangle of corsets and gentleman’s long underwear.)
Beyond the buzzing vibrators and societal commentary, the play is essentially a love story, and Brooke Aiello and Michael Peterson, as the husband and wife central to the story, are fearless in their acting, both physically and emotionally. He’s a doctor who sets up his gynecological practice in an office next to his living room; she is a new mother, bored and listless, with little else to do but watch her husband’s patients walk by all day. Their relationship for much of the play is strained and distant, but there’s also real passion there. Aiello and Peterson manage to dip beneath the surface of that placidity, working their way toward a fretful climax. (No pun intended.)
Members of the supporting cast each stand out in strong ways as well, including Anthony teNyenhuis as a rare male sufferer of “hysteria”; Jennifer Hurd-Peterson as an oddly obliging nurse midwife with a secret; and Isaac Birnbaum as a pompous husband who wants his wife “cured” so he can get his sexual fill.
On opening weekend, understudy Kylee Leyva offered a well-prepared, seamless performance as Mrs. Daldry, the woman patient who receives such satisfaction from the doctor’s electric vibrator experiment. I was impressed. (She was covering for Britt Monahan.) And I was tremendously moved by Arium Andrews, who plays a wet nurse hired to feed the doctor’s baby. In a memorable, mesmerizing monologue, Andrews leads us right into the rawest part of her soul. I won’t soon forget it.
The performance space at The Revue is not the most polished, but it’s evident how much care has been put by Nicki Lack into dressing the set, from the paintings, arranged Louvre-style, on the wall, to the sole electric bulb proudly perched in the living room, its bare bulb a testament to Thomas Edison’s genius. The period costumes, by Ginger K. Reed, feel authentic and lived in. The major drawback to the rudimentary theatrical amenities is Richard Juarez’s lighting design, which can feel much too brash and flagrant. The equipment or the design just isn’t up to the subtleties of the script.
This is the type of low-budget, high-intellect promise that is the mark of daring local community theater. It took nearly 15 years for “In the Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play)” to open in Fresno after its Tony nomination in New York. Thanks to sanders and Shine!, the buzz has finally arrived.
Is it February already? The months seem to tumble by, one after another, and before you know it, another year is gone.
Such is the premise of “Months on End,” a pleasant contemporary comic-drama directed by Julie Lucido, which is playing through Feb. 27 at the 2nd Space Theatre. Playwright Craig Pospisil structures the play in monthly vignettes, dipping in and out of the lives of a group of contemporary New Yorkers who are slowly revealed as bound together by ties of friendship, kinship and romance. It’s like the theatrical visualization of a Facebook account: You may know your friends, but what about the friends of your friends’ friends?
Among the mix of characters: A flailing Walter (Michael Fidalgo) meets the unhappy Elaine (Marikah Christine Leal) at a New Year’s Eve party, and as they both watch his wife march into a bedroom with another man, we witness the beginnings of a surprisingly robust relationship. Elaine, meanwhile, is best buds with Phoebe (Chlorissa Prothro), whose career and life plan are stalled, so she’s spending her time planning a wedding with Ben (Marcus Cardenas), a nice enough guy with an unhealthy obsession with Beatles memorabilia. Other characters include an overbearing mom (Tracy Ruth Hostmyer), nurturing dad (Bryan Beckstrand) and a flailing commitment-phobe (Chase Stubblefield).
The best part of the show is the ease with which the comfortable ensemble cast glides through the material. There are fun connections to make, and as the storyline wanders through a year’s worth of romantic and familial challenges, those “aha” moments ring loud and clear. I’m not crazy about the script, which can feel a little too neat and tidy, but there are interesting characterizations and themes. At times, Pospisil’s dialogue is wooden and blunt. At a softball game, characters trade barbs that feel both too scathing (You didn’t graduate from college! – Oh yeah? Well, you’re having an affair with a married man!) and sit-com inconsequential, with the bitterness of such attacks erased by a quick quip.
Strong performances include ones by Fidalgo, who has the ability to breathe authenticity into any line (well, almost), even those that feel a little plastic; Hostmyer, whose hard-driving New York mom could be played as a caricature, but, in her hands, emerges as a more complicated maternal figure; and Cardenas, who has fun doing the Beatles thing. I really like Leal’s saucy, slightly volatile Elaine, such as the way she at one point clutches Fidalgo’s tie, invading his personal space, and her response when the bride in the show refuses to wear a garter. (Elaine snaps: “Put it on.”) She’s kinda scary.
A shout-out, too, to David Pierce’s clever set, which gives us a giant monthly calendar with cubbyholes for the dates. It’s like a living advent calendar. The show breezes by quickly and effortlessly. With one brisk vignette representing each month, the year soon reaches its end, with two characters in December waiting to take an airplane home for the holidays. Something tells me, given all the canceled flights, that the audience makes it home before they do.
I saw “Guys and Dolls,” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater through March 13, back in January, and I’ve been sitting on the review a while. It’s not because I think it’s an unreviewable (or unworthy) show, but there are several extenuating circumstances. This production went through Covid-19 hell just to make it to the stage, and as I covered the twists and turns of its opening, including a string of postponed/canceled performances and a rotating slate of hard-working understudies, I became a public advocate, cheering it on. To me, community theater is a treasure that needs every ounce of support it can get. Then, finally, with the original leading actors all Covid-free and together, I put on my reviewer’s hat to see the show, and my reaction was mixed: The production didn’t feel as polished and effective as I expect a GCP outing to be in the second weekend of a run. I don’t think there’s any surprise why. It’s impressive that the show got off its feet at all.
Some of the good points: Meg Clark and Terry Lewis roll “sevens” as mismatched lovers Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson. These two voices go really well together. Clark’s “If I Were a Bell” is trilling-thrilling, and Lewis turns “Luck Be a Lady” into a vocal powerhouse. Teddy Maldonado (as Nicely Nicely Johnson) is a bright spark on stage. Randy Kohlruss (as Nathan Detroit) and Mallory Parker (as Adelaide) have some nice musical and comic moments, although there is room for Parker to grow in her deftness in the role. Roger Christensen gets some big laughs as Big Jule. (Although I always wince when Big Jule tries to cheat in the craps game; something in me wants honorable musical-theater gamblers). Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s period costumes are their usual vibrant, svelte selves. And the Hot Box nightclub looks great, thanks to set designer David Pierce and lighting designers Andrea Henrickson and Brandi Martin.
Some of the so-so points: The dancing was on the weak side. (Steve Souza did the choreography.) Such numbers as “Take Back Your Mink” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” meant to be comic and choreographic highlights, didn’t exhilarate, and “Havana” felt skimpy. The lyrics of the show’s most dated song, “Marry the Man Today,” might drive you to distraction. There were some flubbed lines, a sour note or two, and an asynchronous issue in “Fugue for Tinhorns.”
Still, there’s some great singing, good acting and clever direction by Elizabeth Fiester. And you can’t discount the power and musicality of a classic show. I’m guessing that as the run continues – the final performance is March 13 – the ensemble will have tightened up, the musical numbers brightened up, and the production will offer more precision and polish. You can bet on it.