A buzz surrounds "the vibrator play"

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2012 - 2:48 PM

Sarah Ruhl's play about the Victorian origins of the vibrator gets its Minnesota premiere, thanks to another notable Sarah.


Sarah Rasmussen directs "In the Next Room" at the Jungle Theater.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Do humans make love, or do they have sex? Are we playing semantics here, or is there something deeper?

Playwright Sarah Ruhl sought to have a little fun exploring the dichotomy between the biological function of intercourse and the role of intimacy or love between two consenting humans. "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" uses the medical and technological assumptions of a different era to probe the question. The play has its Minnesota premiere Friday at the Jungle Theater, under Sarah Rasmussen's direction.

Rasmussen knows something about the play and about Ruhl's intentions. She was assistant director when "Room" had its Broadway production in 2009. The two Sarahs sat next to each other during rehearsals. Rasmussen said she sensed a vulnerability in Ruhl's work and a refusal to let too much comedy spoil the mood.

"This production [at the Jungle] is my own take," Rasmussen said, "but I know what she thinks, because I was there when we rehearsed."

"In the Next Room" marks Rasmussen's debut at the Jungle. Two years ago, she and artistic director Bain Boehlke got together to talk about potential projects.

"I'd always been a fan of the Jungle and I wanted to do this play," Rasmussen said. "So we had coffee and a great conversation, and five hours later..."

Common roots

She and Boehlke found a lot to talk about. Both started theater companies as youngsters growing up in Midwestern towns -- Sisseton, S.D., in her case. A trip to see a Garland Wright production at the Guthrie so inspired her that she launched her own company at age 14. She graduated from St. Olaf College, where she studied with Gary Gisselman, then moved to California for the MFA directing program at UC-San Diego/La Jolla Playhouse.

Now she lives and works in New York, although she's become a sought-after freelance director around the country. She's returned to La Jolla, worked at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Actors Theatre in Louisville (the Humana Festival), Rattlestick in New York and the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.

She's done several shows in Minneapolis at Mixed Blood and early next year she is scheduled to direct "The Seven," a Will Power adaptation of Aeschylus' "Seven Against Thebes," for Ten Thousand Things.

"Minneapolis feels like home," she said before a recent rehearsal.

Hot and cold on Ruhl

Ruhl has become a media darling for her work over the past decade. In the Twin Cities, she's been represented by "Dead Man's Cell Phone" at Park Square, "Clean House" by Mixed Blood and twice by "Eurydice" (most recently by Walking Shadow Theatre Company).

Despite her relative celebrity, theater artists and critics blow hot and cold on her. "In the Next Room" received some pretty good buzz at the 2010 Tonys, where it was nominated as best play (beaten by "Red," which just finished a run at Park Square).

Rasmussen counts herself a fan, obviously.

"I work on a lot of new plays, and Sarah's always leave space for directors," she said. "She capitalizes on what theater does best, as opposed to writing something that could just be a screenplay. It's meant to be in the theater."

If you saw the lame-ish film "Hysteria" this year, you get the setting and the elements of Ruhl's play, which was in the works before the film. At the Jungle, actor John Middleton plays an 1880s doctor who uses an electrical stimulator to release tensions in women. It's strictly medical -- not sexual.

"Even though this play is set in the past, it asks us today about when will we step away from devices and risk connecting in a more authentic way," Rasmussen said.

The good doctor and his patients don't know to call these strange paroxysms an orgasm, but that's what's happening. His wife (Christina Baldwin) gets curious about the moans she hears coming from her husband's office and wonders if she might give it try. The cast includes Bradley Greenwald, Emily Gunyou-Halaas and Austene Van.

"This could be played as a sex farce," Rasmussen said, "but there is so much that is deeply felt and poignant."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299


    Who: By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Sarah Rasmussen. • When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu. Ends Dec. 16. • Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $20-$33. 612-822-7063 or www.jungletheater.com.

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