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REVIEW

Rep’s ‘The Vibrator Play’ hits the G–giddy–spot

Not quite a paroxysm, but it’s nuanced and poignant, with bittersweet sympathy for its characters
Caisa Borromeo, Tami Monsod and Joshua Spafford in a scene from Repertory Philippines’  “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” directed by Chris Millado —PHOTOS FROM REPERTORY PHILIPPINES

Caisa Borromeo, Tami Monsod and Joshua Spafford in a scene from Repertory Philippines’ “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” directed by Chris Millado —PHOTO FROM REPERTORY PHILIPPINES

The title of Repertory Philippines’ latest comedy, “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” along with the “For Adults Only” warning, might raise up risqué, irreverent images in the audience’s mind.

Far from it. This production, directed by Chris Millado, is actually a slow burn of a sex satire-cum-drama that engages one’s brains, and not just their baser natures. Written by Sarah Ruhl, “The Vibrator Play” was a finalist in the Pulitzer Prize category for Best Drama in 2010.

The emancipation of women from their societal shackles is the undercurrent that runs throughout this play, as it did “Eurydice,” another Ruhl play that was staged a few weeks ago by Tanghalang Pilipino.

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The author fights for her characters in broad emotional strokes that slowly open up the longings of their hearts long before the other players around them, like the men, realize it.

Taken for granted

In “The Vibrator Play,” the restrictions come from the stifling sexual zeitgeist of 19th-century America. Women are expected to play their proper supportive roles as wives and mothers. The few who age into singlehood like Tami Monsod’s nurse Annie earn a living as (again) supporting staff to gentlemen leaders like Dr. Givings (Joshua Spafford).

Affection is taken for granted and takes a back seat, until the ensuing frigidity compels couples like the Daldrys (Hans Eckstein and Caisa Borromeo) to seek “radical treatment” to save their marriage. Givings’ cure for what he diagnoses as hysteria and/or depression among dissatisfied women is the newly invented vibrator; by stimulating the glands in certain nether regions, blood circulation is said to get a boost and atrophied nerves get shocked back into life.

The success of his treatment soon brings in other patients, including, surprisingly, men like the bohemian artist Leo (Jef Flores).

Ironically, Givings’ own marriage needs saving. However, the brilliant but cerebral scientist is too busy and emotionally cold to notice the loneliness of his own wife Catherine (Giannina Ocampo). It doesn’t help that, except for Leo, the gentlemen in this play usually equate sex with duty, without the sweep of romance the women desire.

Ribald laughter

The vibrator’s electric light soon illuminates emotional and relational illnesses, its role as a so-called solution to the women’s melancholy in this play drawing the expected ribald, giddy laughter from the audience. But much of Ruhl’s humor is nuanced and poignant; the overall effect is bittersweet sympathy for the Givings and their guests.

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The set design by Mio Infante is more than just the usual backdrop that comes with a single-setting play. It captures the characters’ societal prison—proper, prim, formal, elegant, but ultimately staid and lifeless. Bonsai Cielo’s costume design, faithful to the era, slyly reflects the physical and emotional layers the people of that time have to put on to play their designated roles.

When Millado makes the scenery disappear in the final scene, the absence reinforces the liberation the lead characters finally attain.

Spafford dominates the play as the dichotomized doctor who can touch women’s most private parts but remain unaffected by them. The crumbling of his professional, detached exterior at the end, played with beautiful understatement, makes for a stirring emotional payoff.

Cara Barredo, Giannina Ocampo  and Caisa Borromeo —PHOTO FROM REPERTORY PHILIPPINES

Cara Barredo, Giannina Ocampo and Caisa Borromeo—PHOTO FROM REPERTORY PHILIPPINES

More fire needed

Ocampo has much more to do with her character, and finding that balance between 19th-century rigidity and her “rebellion” into freedom could use a little more fire (we watched on the first weekend—perhaps she’s found her groove by now).

So could Cara Barredo’s Elizabeth and Flores’ Leo. Leo’s gallant charm is persuasive enough to sway the ladies, but the energy is still too diffused to persuasively shock the Givings’ household out of its  complacency. That role needs that kind of firepower if the audience is to believe that the husband of Elizabeth (Barredo), the Givings’ wet nurse, would eventually ban her from visiting that household.

Barredo’s African-American nurse does the submissive aspect spot-on, but it smothers the required earthiness that’s supposed to make a her a more confident woman in her sexual life, and that her more affluent mistresses could only envy.

Borromeo’s Sabrina would have given her right arm for that kind of sexual fulfillment. The actress’ vulnerability, mixed with a bit of feigned haughtiness and deadpan curiosity, tends to make her shine in her scenes. Eckstein does well in the conflicted gentleman role he has played a dozen times. Monsod’s one revelatory scene, after almost three hours of token nurse lines, shows again that there are no small roles for good actresses.

“The Vibrator Play” takes a bit of time to get used to, but the pace picks up by the second act. The reward at the climax may not be the one audiences hooked in by the title might be looking for, but it’s well worth the wait. —CONTRIBUTED

Repertory Philippines’ “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” runs until April 23 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Visit ticketworld.com.ph.

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TAGS: Caisa Borromeo, Cara Barredo, Chris Millado, Comedy, Giannina Ocampo, Hans Eckstein, hysteria, Jef Flores, Joshua Spafford, paroxysm, Play, Repertory Philippines, Sarah Ruhl, Tami Monsod, The Vibrator Play, Theater, Victorian era
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