New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Some Historic, Some Hysteric"
Clemente Solo Velez Center, Manhattan

Art can indeed transcend brutal reality, transmuting the horrors of history into pure gold. “Some Historic, Some Hysteric” is a case in point. This multi-media performance piece, which deals with the women patients of 19th century mental hospital, is dazzling, brilliant, searing.

Director Ildiko Lujza Nemeth, who conceived the piece with Jessica Sofia Mitrani, based it on the work and notes of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot, literally the founder of modern neurology, “treated” women for hysteria (the catch-all phrase for women’s mental illnesses at that time). As director of the Salpetriere hospital in Paris, he staged theatrical demonstrations, using his patients as performers.

Charcot is seen in this piece as more villain than hero, as he puts his hysterics through their paces, to the titillation of large audiences. Ostensibly a method of scientific inquiry, these stagings were in fact circuses, and the audiences (many of the famous and aristocratic) were not unlike villagers attending a hanging or Romans watching Christians fed to the lions.

The production (all in black, white and red) features a narrator (a stunning woman in red) and a flawless ensemble of dancer/actors, backed by a slide show with talking photographs. There is not a false note anywhere. As Charcot (portrayed with chilling authenticity by Markus Hirnigel) lectures to the audience, he explains each type of hysteric as defined by her symptoms. Sexuality, repressed and otherwise, is the cornerstone for this supposed illness. And Charcot himself, it is gradually revealed, is not above exploiting his patients sexually. Nor is he above exploiting his audience. We are drawn willy-nilly into the action, becoming voyeurs at the Salpetriere hospital.

This view of the birth pangs of modern neurology is indeed devastating. But at the same time, it is an awesome aesthetic experience. Magnificent work, all around, courtesy of its set design, costumes, movement, music, performance and direction.

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 13, 2006

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