By Beki Pineda

HYSTERIA. Written by Terry Johnson; directed by Michael Stricker. Produced by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (performed at the Diary Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St.) through May 17.  Tickets available at 303-444-7328 or thedairy.org.

There was a time in medical history when symptoms that could not be identified as having a physical cause were lumped under the generic diagnosis of hysteria. In a way, the field of psychiatry was born to deal with these symptoms. Freud’s early work laid the blame on actual physical, sexual or emotional abuse by trusted figures in a child’s early years which manifested itself in later life as hysteria. After operating with that set of guidelines for a number of years, he modified his theories, integrating the possibility of other causes and eliminating the belief that actual physical abuse by a loved one was the primary cause. Rather, his new theory attributed the origins of later unexplained illnesses to normal unidentified sexual urges in young adults. In a nutshell.

In HYSTERIA we meet Freud in the last year of his life, haunted by the mistakes he made in earlier cases using the analysis techniques he now discounts. He has fled his beloved Vienna because of the Nazi threat to his family and is settled in England. His friend Yahuda serves as doctor and literary advisor. Early one morning a young female student presents herself at the window of his study, pleading for his cooperation in completing an educational project. As he is dealing with this unexpected intruder, the painter Salvador Dalí arrives for his planned visit. Freud’s attempts to keep his female visitor (who has now disrobed!) from being discovered by either Yahuda or Dalí creates a classical farce situation in which the lies get bigger and more outrageous as the incident spins out of control.

The intruder is finally identified as Jessica, the daughter of a former patient, and her true purpose for the visit moves the farce to the dark side.  Along the way Dalí discusses the birth and death of Surrealism, snails are destroyed, and phallic symbols are used as weapons of mass destruction. While serious matters are revealed, the evening never gets more than two or three lines away from humor.

Much of the humor is based on the arrogant and conceited character of Dalí. As portrayed by the comically gifted Micheal Bouchard, Dalí becomes the center of his own universe, speaking of himself in third person. His small comic gestures, vocal quirks and throwaway lines make it hard to take your eyes off him. But he is also unabashedly impressed with meeting Freud, and captivated by Jessica. His self-absorption makes it difficult for Freud to admire him. Dalí expresses his gratitude for Freud’s role in his artistic existence by saying, “I owe you my life.” Freud responds: “An unintentional gift, I assure you.”

Chris Kendall delivers another great character study as the ailing but lively Freud. He keeps us constantly aware of Freud’s pain as he suffers from cancer of the mouth and yet is fully engaged in the physical comedy and the story being told. Jim Hunt as Yahuda, quite often the eye of the storm in a room of frenetic action, also gets in his comic licks. He is a devoted friend to Freud, providing the morphine needed to keep him out of pain. The mysterious Lauren Bahlman, a newcomer to BETC, brings both a comic sensibility and a passionate anger to her role of Jessica.

Act II contains a nightmare scene that presents the worst fears of Freud and the surrealistic art of Dalí. It is absolutely brilliant in its technical polish, its startling visual impact, and the surprises as it evolves. Kudos to the combined efforts of the light, sound and scenic team that made this happen. It visually illustrates the chaos of Freud’s mind, and brought gasps from the audience.

Boulder is blessed to have BETC. Get out and support them!

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