Hysteria, a disease in which the uterus wanders through the body and attaches itself to internal organs resulting in different psychological and physical symptoms, was a construct of medicine in the 5th century BC. These same doctors also thought that bloodletting was a cure for fever and that riding a horse could help unstick your blocked pneuma, so I wouldn’t take anything they said too seriously. Nonetheless, long after anatomy proved otherwise, a disorder called “hysteria” remained in the lingo of western medicine, regarded as a legit disease as late as the 20th century.
Diseases particular to women, especially those that entail either madness or the uterus, are the theme of The Hysteria Triptych written by Erin Lindsay and directed by Cristina Cugliandro. Three diverse women (both age and race) deliver short pieces that depict individual responses to traumas. Two are poetic monologues, and the third is a flash-back, flash-forward dialogue. Each short piece is complete on its own and more or less captures a similar sentiment about how social forces drive women to madness.
In the first, an older woman (Jacqueline van de Geer) drinks water every time she begins to rant and rave as she dresses herself in her battle gear: a red outfit. In the second, a woman (Kathleen Stavert) has undergone a brain surgery to remove a “trauma” to become a better mother, but is left unable to care for herself and in consequence damages her relationship to her partner (Patrick Abellard). In the third, a woman (Dayane Ntibarikure) recounts a sexual dream that becomes increasingly violent. Although the three are linked by the theme of assaults against women (actual and metaphorical), there is no overarching narrative to these works. They are, in essence, performance pieces rather than theatre in the conventional sense.
While there is good imagery and poetic language, the first and third pieces are difficult to follow. They are spoken-word performances reminiscent of slam poetry. Words flow — blood, water, sex, hatred — and while individual phrases delivered within are profound, they lose their potency except as a component of a diatribe. Both actresses do a fine job evoking a sense of dimensionality to their characters, despite the abstractness of the monologues they deliver. The two are similar to each other in anger and mood, and bookend the middle work.
The second piece about the couple has a coherent plot which makes it easier to grasp. Yet, even here, the audience is asked to suspend belief as the main character reveals she has undergone a strange type of brain surgery to remove a “trauma”. A tragic childbirth is mentioned, but it is unclear if this event has actually happened and we are looking at a stylized form of postpartum depression. In addition to the murkiness of the situation, this piece jumps back and forth between the hopeless present in which the main character can barely leave her flooded bathroom and the loving moments she shares with her partner before the surgery. I personally didn’t mind the ambiguity, but it makes for a challenging work to watch. Kudos to Lindsay for allowing the one male character in the show to be a stand-up guy who does not abandon his partner despite her dysfunction.
While the subject matter is both uncomfortable and angry, the show has a delicate beauty to it. The colors, the costuming, the triptych presentation of the three segments, and the acting are all well conceived. The ideas are interesting too, just lost in the stylized manner of presentation.
The Hysteria Triptych took place May 22-27 at the Rialto Theatre.