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Hysteria

While Sigmund Freud is rightfully credited with the genesis of psychoanalysis, with many of his ideas still forming the basis of this social science, other ideas, particularly those concerning psychosexual development, have been discredited. Freud himself vacillated on these particular theories, at first (1896) attributing adult hysteria to repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. This position was heavily criticized, largely due to the fact that several of his patients were from prominent families. Freud recanted these ideas (1898) and replaced them with a new theory of psychosexual development that included such concepts as the "Oedipus complex" and "penis envy."

Chris Kendall as Sigmund Freud and Lauren Bahlman as Jessica
Chris Kendall as Sigmund Freud
and Lauren Bahlman as Jessica
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In the art world, Andre Breton's Surrealist Manifesto (1924) was heavily influenced by Freud's work on dreams and the unconscious. This fusion of art and psychoanalysis attracted Salvador Dali, who visited Freud in London on July 19, 1938, bringing along his newest work, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, while making a number of sketches of Freud.

In Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's regional premiere of Terry Johnson's Hysteria, events of that visit by Dali are mixed with Freud's deteriorating health due to cancer, his care by his longtime personal physician (Yehuda, a conflation of Max Schur [the physician], with Abraham Shalom Yahuda [a Judaic scholar]), as well as Freud's morphine-inspired dreams, plus a clever re-enactment of the famous case of "Rebecca S." (which serves as a pre-eminent example of the effects of Freud's switch from a theory of repressed childhood sexual abuse to one of sexual envy).

The resulting phantasmagoria of ideas, images, slapstick farce, and psychodrama, make for a mind-bending and surreal experience.

Chris Kendall as Sigmund Freud and Jim Hunt as Yehuda
Chris Kendall as Sigmund Freud
and Jim Hunt as Yehuda
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In the middle of the night, within a single spotlight, Freud (Chris Kendall) sits in his analyst's chair next to the famous patient's couch. He is in pain, rubbing his jaw, which has recently been under the surgeon's knife. From the shadows, a mysterious, cloaked figure moves across the room and administers a shot to Freud. A train roars past. A young woman, Jessica (Lauren Bahlman), appears at the French doors that lead to the garden.

Kendall deftly establishes Freud's strong mental powers and authoritarian air, yet is hard pressed to resist as Jessica weasels her way into the house and engages a reluctant Freud into discussion. As Jessica, Bahlman's mix of manic and contentious takes us on a wild ride, driving us to wonder what rash act will be next. As she compromises Freud's position, Yehuda's (Jim Hunt) appearance drives the situation into farce. Hunt stays the course with laser intensity as the straight man, his Yehuda pressing Freud into ever greater fabrications, each more ridiculous than the last, until Yehuda, too, like Jessica, becomes party to the madcap atmosphere. Just when you think the hysterics have peaked, Dali (Michael Bouchard) arrives to send the story into overdrive. Bouchard is a font of zaniness as the famed Spanish surrealist with the world's most recognizable moustache.

Chris Kendall as Sigmund Freud and Michael Bouchard as Salvadore Dali
Chris Kendall as Sigmund Freud
and Michael Bouchard as Salvadore Dali
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Director Michael Stricker and the creative crew conjure up a series of events and entrances that bring the surrealist demands of the script to fruition.

Playwright Terry Johnson's conceit in Jessica's story provides a marvelous elucidation of the issues surrounding Freud's psychosexual theories.

Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's regional premiere of Terry Johnson's Hysteria, directed Michael Stricker, runs through May 17th. For tickets: 303-444-7328 or betc.org/hysteria.

Bob Bows

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