You’re familiar with the term tragi-comedy? Terry Johnson’s Hysteria could be considered a tragi-farce. It’s full of farcical elements: multiple doors, unexpected exits and entrances, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, a naked woman in a closet, silly accents, women’s panties, a man without his trousers who — at least in this Boulder Ensemble Theatre production — is wearing ridiculous gartered socks. But horror presses in urgently.
The year is 1938. Sigmund Freud is dying of cancer in leafy Hampstead, having fled to London after the Nazi invasion of Austria. Over the course of the evening, three visitors enter his book-filled study. One is Salvador Dalí, who did, in fact, call on Freud during this period, and who identified the Viennese psychoanalyst’s exploration of the unconscious as the inspiration behind surrealism. A second visitor, Abraham Yahuda (Freud’s doctor in the play, though not in life), has come both to tend to his patient and to pressure him not to publish his latest work — which argues that Moses was not Jewish but Egyptian — at this time when Jews are in such danger. “Moses was a Jew!” Yahuda exclaims. “Moses was chosen! If Moses was not a Jew, then we were not chosen!” Perhaps the most significant visitor is Jessica, a strange young woman who appears in the pouring rain outside the French windows and refuses to leave until she gets what she came for — though we won’t know for a while exactly what that is.
This hallucinatory coming together of the ordinary with the fantastical and preposterous is studded with all kinds of absurdist and evocative imagery. Snails and mucus. Sex and touch aversion. Salt, semen and bird shit. Phallic statues. Swans and starlings. And, of course, a melting clock, a roaring train, and solid objects that turn to rubber. The story is full of sorrow, as well as many serious themes to be argued, pondered or repressed. Freud changed his mind about the cause of hysteria; his original theory was that it resulted from sexual molestation during childhood, but later he recanted, suggesting that hysteria represented the girl child’s secret and forbidden desire for her father. Now, at the end of his life and confronted by Jessica, he faces the possibility that his life’s work lacked integrity and his methods created more damage than healing. The opportunistic Dalí proves as willing to abandon his artistic principles as his politics. England braces for war; bomb attacks threaten. And Freud’s four elderly sisters are still trapped in Europe.
“Is serious now, yes?” Dalí says at the beginning of the second act. “I go put my trousers on.” That’s surely Johnson’s comment on the brew he’s cooked up: Only a translucent membrane divides horror and hilarity, and only the quiver of a diaphragm separates laughter from uncontrollable weeping.
There’s a lot more to this strange, complex, brilliant and often moving play than can be absorbed in a single viewing. Where else can you watch two figures in someone else’s fantasy discussing whether they exist when the fantastist is out of the room? It’s a passage that reminded me irresistibly of Tweedledee telling Alice in Through the Looking Glass that she’s only a facet of the Red King’s dream, and if the king were to wake up, “You’d go out — bang! — just like a candle.” How can she not be real, says a weeping Alice. How else could she cry? “I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears,” Tweedledum responds contemptuously.
Hysteria is richly detailed, thought-provoking and full of wit and allusion, but it isn’t dense or hard to watch. Under the direction of Michael Stricker, the play makes for a funny, absorbing evening. I loved Kerry Cripe’s set design, which evokes perfectly the warmth and clutter of an educated émigré’s study of the time. Michael Bouchard is so wonderfully funny as Dalí that I was almost sorry when he had to be serious — and delighted by his every move back toward full-out farce. There’s a passionate performance from Lauren Bahlman as Jessica. Jim Hunt, one of our best actors, is an appealing Yahuda, alternately fumbling and authoritative, though the character could have been a little more specific. Chris Kendall’s Freud is the evening’s linchpin, though: wise, sad, nuanced and too close to the end of his endurance to strike out again in the search for truth.
Hysteria, presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through May 17, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, boulderensembletheatre.com.