Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) is about orgasms -- but it's neither titillating nor smutty. Ruhl has been called one of our most brilliantly imaginative playwrights, and locals have seen her luminous work before at the Denver Center, Curious Theatre Company and the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.
Now Equinox has managed to grab In the Next Room, which was both a Pulitzer finalist and a Tony nominee, and is staging the Denver premiere at the Bug Theatre.
At its most obvious level, the play deals with attitudes toward women and their sexuality in Victorian times, when doctors believed that hysteria was the culprit in almost all the ailments women suffered, and the root of hysteria (as of the word itself) was the uterus. The remedy was stimulation to orgasm.Director Deb Flomberg says she devoured the script when it first fell into her hands and was determined to produce it. "It speaks to so many issues that are still very relevant: women's sexuality, repression, homosexuality, liberation, finding yourself," she says, "and yet it's told in this funny, light-hearted, poignant way."
Equinox is a small company, and Ruhl's plays tend to require sophisticated and beautiful visual effects. "We've had to look at it from a creative perspective," notes Flomberg, "asking ourselves how we can make it work with the resources we have. You really get to experiment and play. And sometimes you're just banging your head against the wall.
"If I had unlimited budget, I would have hundreds of amazing things happening on stage. But we do things on a budget, and there are limitations working out of the Bug Theatre -- no catwalks, nowhere to hang anything, no wing space. But we love the place. The Bug has its own following. It brings in the younger, more artsy, independent arts patron."
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Putting her creativity to work, Flomberg not only found a robotics engineer, Evan Spitler, to design the large vibrator needed for the on-set doctor's office, but she poked around antique shops and discovered a couple of antique vibrators to display in the lobby, one dated 1915 -- "with all the pieces, beautifully intact" -- and a second from 1950. And, of course, there's a modern vibrator to show how vibrators have evolved over the years.
And then Flomberg plunged into historical research. She brought in an expert on women's history to talk to the cast and help everyone "get over the giggles," she remembers. "The historian just talked about the history of hysteria and manual stimulation. They thought that a woman's uterus moved around her body. So if a woman had a headache, it meant her uterus had wandered, and they'd have to massage it back down where it belonged."
Needing actors who were "vulnerable, courageous, and willing to let go," Flomberg says, she had those who auditioned perform the play's first orgasm scene, telling them: "The woman having this orgasm would have little idea what was happening to her. They didn't know that orgasms were sexual in any way. You've never seen porn; you don't know what you're supposed to sound like or look like. This release should be whatever feels natural to you."
The role was eventually given to Aimee Nelson, who "takes the scene to a beautiful place," Flomberg says.
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Flomberg stresses that In The Next Room is not just a show for a girls' night out, but contains plenty to interest men. "The play lets you laugh at things -- orgasms are kind of hysterical, and it's okay to laugh," she says. "But there's another side that's sad and beautiful and deals with love in all its forms: between man and wife, woman and child, woman and God, man and his creative passion."
In the Next Room opens Friday, May 25 and runs Fridays and Saturdays through June 16 at the Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street. For more information, call 720-984-0781 or go to www.equinoxtheatredenver.com.