Arts Listings

‘Hysteria’ at the Aurora Theater

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday September 14, 2007

It’s only appropriate, after a play about Freud’s last days in England (“Freudian slips,” shots of morphine and meeting Salvador Dali), that what’s remembered breaks down to obsessive, recurrent actions and images, signaled by the insistent tapping of an unexpected visitor on a glass door leading from a study into a garden. 

Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, now on-stage at the Aurora, with Joy Carlin directing, is subtitled “or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis,” a sliver that cuts both—or all—ways. Swinging back and forth between a serious look at the Father of Psychoanalysis facing the immediacy of mortality while attempting to continue till the end, exiled in England after the Anschluss has driven him from Vienna, and a crazy, slapstick farce of pretension and self-deception, it’s a very English thing, strung out between a Cambridge seminar and an uptown music hall.  

In some ways, Johnson pulls out the stops on Stoppard, at least in posing a theatrical conundrum that’s a projection of its audience’s grasp of the subject at hand. 

And what better subject for a conundrum than a riff off the actual meeting between the investigator into the psychic meaning of slips of the tongue, jokes and riddles and the premier illustrator, mid-20th century, of the mental state which produces them? 

The encounter between Freud and Dali takes the form of a bad daydream, a mirage of how Freud might have felt about meeting the self-parodying autofarceur of Surrealist painting, who liked to grandstand in both personal meetings and public appearances. 

That stellar meeting is, however, sandwiched between a less explicable intrusion, that of a strange woman at the rainy garden door, who alternately seems to be seeking something or seeking to deliver something else, both threatening and vulnerable in both her tenacity at remaining in the master’s presence despite his commands for her to leave, and her determination to doff her clothes.  

The scene itself is hysterical, and becomes the unlikely, if eponymous, ground for an inquiry into the case which helped decide Freud’s shift in the theory of “family romance” from the more confrontational positing of widespread child molestation to the later complexities of “infant sexuality,” the repressed incidents explained as what the seeming victim imagined or desired to happen. 

It’s a heady brew both the actors and audience bolt down, like Alice sampling the bottle marked “Drink me” (and, as in Surrealism itself, besides English domestic life, there are many other reminders of “Alice” at odd moments during a roller-coaster evening.) 

The cast is top notch—Warren David Keith a stalwart yet bumbling Freud (without, alas, the charm exhibited in his books and remarks to the press, but with what Sherlock Holmes, that other intrepid unraveler of mysteries, dubbed “a pawky humor” in his otherwise straight man sidekick, Dr. Watson). The Dr. Watson of this adventure is a composite physician, administering the shots which will eventually euthanize Freud, and Jewish scholar, delivering another kind of shot, chiding the master for his agnostic Moses and Monotheism, produced at a desperate moment for those other Jews still stuck in the Reich from whence they fled. Charles Dean plays Abraham Yahuda with an admirable, dry poise, anchoring the antics of the rest of the bunch. 

The chimerical Salvador Dali is nicely portrayed with spread-eagled waxed mustache, an overwrought flourish and comic swagger worthy of Danny Kaye by Howard Swain, who hilariously makes every self-regarding move seem like both an entrance and an exit. 

But the most elusive, shadowy character, whose historical antecedents are legion, victims and children of victims all—Jessica the erudite intruder—is the most fully, profoundly portrayed, by splendid Nancy Carlin. Perhaps freed of the necessity (and temptation) to make up a half-historically accurate caricature, like the others, she is the catalyst, the reagent, for the strange alchemy that makes the play work, that takes it past the status of a Monty Python or Beyond The Fringe camping and into the realm of real theater. As Freud intones at the end, “The year I looked into myself is the year that is killing me!” 

The production values are practically seamless. All add to the total effect, constantly jostled by the seesaw dynamics and sometimes burlesque tone. The cast was still playing with the very British timing and humor the first weekend, but was out of the gate and running with it. They’re thoroughbreds—it can get to be muddy going, but the only slip will be Freudian—and this time, intentional. 



8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 30 at Aurora Theater, 2081 Addison St. $40-$42. 843-4822.