In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. Playwright Sarah Ruhl uses the orgasm as the prism through which she views the entire Victorian world — and, by extension, our own. From the orgasm, entirely misunderstood and invisible in those repressive times, emanate ripples that change not only the relationships between women and men, but love itself in all its manifestations.In the Next Room is set in the 1880s, when doctors believed that many kinds of illness were caused by hysteria and began in the uterus. To cure conditions ranging from headache and fatigue to temporary blindness, the womb needed to be coaxed back from wherever it had strayed by genital massage to the point of "hysterical paroxysm." Doctors performed the task manually, but once Edison discovered electricity, the vibrator was put to use. Into the offices of the upright and dedicated Dr. Givings comes Mrs. Daldry, suffering from several ill-defined symptoms, and with the aid of his nurse, Annie, the doctor provides relief. In the adjoining room, his wife struggles to cope with her own excitable energy, mourns her inability to nurse her baby, and wonders at the sounds coming from the examining room. Although there are a number of on-stage orgasms in this play, there's nothing smutty about it. Ruhl treats her topic with a kind of tender and shining innocence. But there's also plenty of humor here: One of the funniest moments comes when Mrs. Daldry and Mrs. Givings (to whom Mrs. Daldry has demonstrated the vibrator) respond with merry, incredulous laughter to the suggestion that the strange new sensations they've experienced can be caused by sexual intercourse. This low-budget production, with its workable set and exquisite costumes, is a lot of fun, but it's fun that's resonant, deep and, yes, vibrant. Presented by Equinox Theatre through June 16, Bug Theater, 3654 Navajo Street, 720-984-0781, equinoxtheatredenver.com. Reviewed June 7.
Red. John Logan's Red is a two-hander about painter Mark Rothko. The year is 1958, and he has been commissioned to create a group of paintings for Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, to be exhibited in the Four Seasons restaurant. In the play, Rothko has hired an assistant, a young aspiring artist. Ken is suitably awed by the master, arriving in a suit and tie, desperately trying to come up with the right answers to Rothko's penetrating and often ill-tempered questions, most important among them: What does Ken see when he looks at the painting Rothko is working on? The early part of the play is a lesson in how to look at art — or at least art like Rothko's, pulsations of color, vibrating reds balanced by floating black frame-like shapes, art that's torn from the creator's soul yet from which the creator has deliberately absented himself. But what we're getting is more than a fascinating lecture. It is also a glimpse into the psyche of an obsessed genius, a troubled human being, a solipsist for whom nothing outside his mind and art really exists. For a long time Rothko overwhelms poor Ken, who pours coffee, cleans up, fetches Chinese food, endures rages that arise as pointlessly and unexpectedly as summer storms, considers bringing his own work to Rothko's attention but thinks the better of it, and comes to understand Rothko's petty jealousies and his deepest fears — that the work is insufficient, that the black in his paintings will eventually overwhelm the red, that his time in the limelight is over and younger talents will surpass him as he surpassed those who went before. Finally, Ken calls Rothko on his narcissism and suggests that his portentous, heavy-spirited work isn't the only valid form of art. "Sometimes," he says, "you just want a fucking still life." Like Rothko's paintings, Red makes strong demands on the viewer. And repays them in full. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 16, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 17.