You may or may not have been smiling this week; either way, now get ready to laugh madly. Burning Coal Theatre Company has opened Hysteria, the 1993 farce by British playwright Terry Johnson, in the Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School; and it is a delight.
Hysteria is set in England in 1938, and features Sigmund Freud in his study, receiving visits from his doctor Yahuda, the painter Salvador Dali, and a mysterious young woman whose gradual self-revelations bring into focus the darker elements of this quicksilver play. The silliness here has serious purpose — a fact that in no way mitigates its humor. Freud is nearing the end of his life, suffering from a cancer, and — it appears —- drifting in and out of a dream state in which the validity of his ideas, and the meaning and usefulness of his life, are challenged by the Jewish philosopher Yahuda, the Surrealist painter Dali, and the Anima in the closet, Jessica.
Some of Freud’s theories are enlivened by these characters, and they move around like chess figures in a power struggle — an analogy reinforced by the chessboard laid out downstage on the set. Along with the madcap dashing about, the slamming doors and shed clothing, the sexual innuendo and cultural jokes, the play is rich with challenge. What is true/what is right/what is good, and must those, or can those, coincide? Should one consider the effects one's rational intellectual explorations may have on individual, feeling, humans? What responsibility accrues to the promulgator of ideas for the damage they may cause?
In this scintillating production directed by Jerome Davis, Hysteria’s ideas make their transference to your brain almost unnoticed during the hilarious first act; but when the darker second act opens, you find them firmly lodged there. This is not a play that kicks you in the gut, and the only erogenous zone it rubs up against is the one in the head. It is a little paradoxical that such a cerebral play uses so much physical humor. But the technique works, and the actors’ comic timing is impeccable throughout.
Brian Linden is fantastic as the mercurial Dali, with his trademark moustache and enormous ego. He can dominate the stage or disappear like the Cheshire Cat, as the moment demands. Emilie Stark-Menneg, like Linden, visiting from New York, is vivid as Jessica. Fearless and amazing, she exhibits an astonishing range in the play’s pivotal role. The two other roles are filled by Raleighites well known to theatergoers. Kenny Gannon is marvelous as the stolid but increasingly discombobulated Freud; and George Jack’s deadpan turn as Yahuda supplies the necessary ballast in this high-flying caper. Kudos also go to the design team for an exceptionally well-conceived staging.
This highly-recommended production continues at Burning Coal through Nov. 23rd. See our theatre calendar for details.