Hysteria as a medical diagnosis is a hoary, reeking relic of another time: the fantastic notion that energy from a displaced uterus will infiltrate the female brain and cause madness. Instead of giving credence to the real problems of women's lives, Victorian doctors pasted the label on every woman squirming in her social restraints and warmed up their tools: leeches and scalpels, shock treatments, dubious potions and powders. Aphonia, meanwhile, is a condition where one cannot speak; although it may result from disease or injury to the vocal cords, it's usually psychosomatic. At the turn of the last century it was often blamed on hysteria.
Two new plays -- one set in the present, the other based on a novel written in 1924 -- examine what the Victorians would have called hysteria and what we are more likely to classify as responses to overwhelming external pressure. Sheila Callaghan's Scab at Impact and Francesca Faridany's adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Fräulein Else at the Berkeley Rep both refute the Victorians by respectfully following the interior journeys of women. Fräulein Else is a stream of consciousness with a few external characters dipping in and out, while in Scab the self-observational voyage takes two different forms: the monologues Anima directs to the audience, and her roommate Christa's obsessive self-recording via camcorder. Although these stories are separated by nearly a century, they share many of the same themes and characters: the contrast between internal and external states, the relationship between a woman and her absent father, ineffectual mothers and brothers. They're also both darkly funny, Scab more so than Else.
Austrian physician and writer Arthur Schnitzler corresponded with and admired Freud, but seems to have been more compassionate. Fräulein Else is a natural example. It's the same story as Freud's famous history of the patient code-named Dora. A spirited young woman is behaving "strangely." We learn that she has been enjoined by her father to give herself to an older man she dislikes in order to resolve the father's indiscretion with the older man's wife. Clearly Schnitzler based Else on suicidal, aphonic Dora. But there the similarity ends. Freud thought that Dora's emotional distress was the result of a frustrated love for the older man that was actually a sublimated expression of desire for her father. He even bizarrely suggested that Dora's nervous cough was a "throat orgasm" indicating her wish to fellate her father. Wisely, Dora abruptly stopped seeing Freud. In Schnitzler's version, Else has good reason to be repulsed by Herr Von Dorsday, and while she adores her father, there is no implication that she wants Von Dorsday as a father-substitute.
Schnitzler wrote Else the same way he did Lieutenant Gustl -- as an interior dialogue that follows the character through a period of a few hours. Else, a vivacious and attractive nineteen-year-old, is vacationing at a fashionable Alpine resort below Mt. Cimone. As the story opens, she anxiously awaits a special-delivery letter from her mother, the contents of which will force Else to make an unthinkable choice. Schnitzler follows the young woman as she reads the letter and steels herself to obey her family, all the time chattering to herself about silk stockings and a handsome stranger in the dining room, downing sedative powders as she goes. Eventually the pressure of her mission will lead her to a shocking act, and she'll fall into aphonia -- a condition about which Schnitzler ultimately wrote a medical text.
Although Else has been adapted (and bowdlerized) for the stage in the past, Faridany was unhappy with the older versions. So she set out to create a new treatment that was juicier and more faithful to the original, which meant lots of workshopping and translating the story herself from the German. The result is extraordinary. Although it sounds like the novella upon which it's based, reading Fräulein Else is not nearly as wonderful as seeing it performed by Faridany, whose phenomenal, wholehearted performance brightens the story and gives it momentum.
Wisely, Faridany keeps Fräulein Else set firmly in place and time. Schnitzler's work is so much about fin de siècle Viennese culture that the two cannot be separated. As Reinhard Urbach writes, "In Schnitzler's works Vienna is not a movable stage prop," a lesson Stanley Kubrick learned when he moved Schnitzler's Rhapsody from the close of the Hapsburg era to modern New York and renamed it Eyes Wide Shut. Else's characters are firmly of prewar Vienna; urbane, brittle, keenly aware of class. They are also constrained by their fading culture from expressing themselves truthfully, a tragedy beautifully realized by Faridany and the team at the Rep who gambled on her vision.
The hero of Sheila Callaghan's Scab isn't classically aphonic, but it can be argued that her inability to say what she really wants and needs to say is just as heartbreaking. Anima is a 23-year-old grad student whose father has just died. She drowns her loss and guilt in alcohol and has taken to sleeping in the fetal position on the living-room floor. The latter troubles uptight new roommate Christa, who has to step over Anima to get anywhere in their small apartment. When Anima finally wakes up, the relationship that develops between the two women will change them both permanently.
Scab is an assured work that swims back and forth between painfully real dialogue and poetry. Callaghan skillfully asks whether it's better to keep picking off the scab covering our griefs until all the pain has been aired, or let it sink deeper and hopefully disappear. Set in the grad-school milieu and full of Jack Daniels and cheap collegiate furniture, Scab is a natural choice for Impact. The blood, sex, and drunkenness aren't gratuitous but integral; just as in its recent Henry 4: The Remix, once again Impact transcends the cheap thrills of its earlier work without putting all its clothes on.
There are elements of the fantastic here. Besides the trash-mouthed Virgin Mary (Eleanor Scott) and her giggling bondage-gear-clad angels (Pete Caslavka and Noah James Butler), there's an evil grad-student chorus (three heads, one black turtleneck). Anima's mother and brother show up in a nurse's outfit and a diaper, respectively.
Anima is the sort of character Alyssa Bostwick often plays for Impact -- a tough cookie with a tender middle, a wisecracker who seems older than her years. Yet somewhere along the line, Bostwick made a quantum leap. This time out, her soft side is a lot softer and more vulnerable, and her believability has increased tremendously. There is a new overall calmness to her performance.
Emily Klein as Christa is, by contrast, a little wobbly. She pitches her voice high in the sinuses, which seems to be cutting down on her vocal variety and space to move emotionally as a result. In the performance I saw, she opened up more as the story unfolded.
Like Else, Scab is noteworthy for the way its writer uses language to develop the characters. Anima notes that when she started putting on weight, her breasts began "to point out to either side like the eyes in the head of a lizard." When Christa admits to feeling inferior to her classmates, Anima consoles her by referring to them as "a bunch of pumped-up ass-lickers." But she also waxes profound: "I remember my inner skin being cold and my outer skin being hot." Callaghan's dialogue ranges from soaring to filthy and back again, which keeps the experience lively, unexpected, and often very funny. Ultimately Scab is a hopeful vision of what happens when a woman finds her voice -- and the courage to use it.
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