Thoughts & Musings

Hello, Dali

It is theatrical magic that elicits not only spontaneous laughter, but as well an exploratory trip into the unconscious where even angels fear to tread.

by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
  • 3rd February 20163/02/16
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“Please, make yourself comfortable on my couch, Salvador,” Dr. Freud said to the flamboyant Spanish painter.

“Thank you, doctor, but I think I’d prefer to stand right where I am,” Dali replied with perhaps just a hint of surrealistic sarcasm.

And so it goes in 2nd Story Theatre’s hysterically funny production of Terry Johnson’s “Hysteria,” now running in Warren. Playwright Johnson brings together the father of psychoanalysis and the father of surrealism in a rapid-fire comic drama set on the eve of World War II. Freud is 83 and dying; Dali is 34, full of life and afraid of neither hellfire nor damnation.

Played in-the-round on an approximate duplication of Freud’s study in Vienna designed by Candis Dixon, Johnson uses four characters to examine Freud’s theory of hysteria and Dali’s unique approach to self-expression through painting. Freud’s study, moved from Vienna to London and finally to Warren, is where psychodrama, psychoanalysis and art square off in a battle of minds over manners.

Ed Shea as Sigmund Freud and Luis Astudillo playing Salvador Dali are joined on stage by Lara Hakeem in the role of Jessica, the distraught daughter of one of Freud’s former patients, and Michael McAdam in the role of Yahuda, Freud’s friend and physician. Shea, who also directs the play, accentuates Johnson’s humor in the script to get over some tough spots, of which there are many.

For example: Jessica’s psychological angst is mollified by the fact that she can’t seem to keep costume designer Ron Cesario’s clothes on. Dali, who idolizes Freud, can’t seem to get his off; and Freud’s straight-laced Jewish friend Yahuda is obsessed with keeping the good doctor from publishing a treatise exposing Moses as being the offspring of Egyptian royalty rather than Hebrew slaves.

Wrapped within the comedy are some serious themes and criticism of Freud’s take of female hysteria. Jessica’s role is used to explore this theme, and Hakeem is brilliant as the edgy daughter of a woman who Freud “cured’ of hysteria through psychoanalysis. Hakeem and Shea’s acidic and sometimes humorous banter is electric; he rants, she raves while the audience sits by mesmerized.

As the outrageous Salvador Dali, Astudillo is, pardon the expression, a scream. Surrealism’s founder considers Freud to be his inspiration even while Freud finds Dali’s work frivolous. Obsessed with her armpit, Astudillo stalks Hakeem’s Jessica with his id hanging out like fresh laundry on a sunny afternoon. Astudillo makes Dali’s disconnect with the world of reality so fetching that it’s almost comprehensible. Almost!

The only sane character in the play is Yahuda, played by the exceptionally talented and highly versatile McAdam. His steady performance grounds the conflict in the present — 1939 — and shows that you don’t have to be crazy to be brilliant. It might help, but it is not absolutely necessary. And he manages to keep his clothes on throughout the performance.

This is heady stuff. The characters are complex and in some cases damaged; their struggles are at the same time personal and universal. To truly appreciate the play, it might be a good idea to brush up on Freud and surrealism.

2nd Story’s most excellent production of “Hysteria” is as much an intellectual exercise as it is entertainment. It is theatrical magic that elicits not only spontaneous laughter, but as well an exploratory trip into the unconscious where even angels fear to tread. It is a play that encourages self-examination to be used as a tool to better comprehend human behavior. “Hysteria” shows how thinking and laughing go hand-in-hand, but not necessarily in that order.

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