I was worried about The Hystericon, which is playing in the Fringe Festival at Theatre Passe Muraille. These themes–madness, the dark history of psychiatry, medical sexism–are so well-trodden that, as a reviewer, I basically roll my eyes when I happen across them. “Oh, look. Another newly-minted theatre-school graduate who thinks they can improve upon Marat/Sade. How adorable.”
I tell you this because the ladies who inhabit The Hystericon blew my mind. They’ve taken a genre positively filled with hoary old tropes and predictable dullness, and they’ve somehow cobbled together a fresh, innovative, interesting and utterly worthwhile play.
Renée Haché, Lesley Robertson and Nicole Wilson each play a patient at the Salpêtrière asylum for women. These characters are note-perfect, and the interplay between the performers is outstanding. The effect is not unlike watching children roleplay in a schoolyard: effortless, energetic, highly engaging and very, very confident.
But the real purpose of this phenomenon is to set up the audience to be punched in the gut. And you will be. Director Alexander Offord loves to toy with us, allowing us to believe that the experience will be sterile, gutless, clean and tidy–until the grotesque arrives. Nothing which will scar you for life, but enough to remind us that these aren’t frivolous women arguing with their psychiatrists, these are victims of considerable violence. Violence inflicted by the asylum, by society, by each other, by the field of medicine, by the low status of women, by their own bodies, and by themselves.
Offord has also graced The Hystericon with an outstanding script, well-researched without being encyclopedic; funny without being comic; serious without being melodramatic. Everything in this writing is just so: aimed, balanced and spun perfectly. Offord has chosen some challenging targets, and he knocks down every single one of them.
He also gets a lot of help from choreographer Courney Simpson, who has an amazing touch: the staging is just lively enough to keep us engaged, but not crowded or over-the-top. The movement compliments the story and script perfectly–and flatters the actors. We couldn’t ask for anything more.
And I’d like to ensure I name-check Nicholas Porteous, who plays an unseen character–the physician who keeps the asylum going. Porteous’ voice work is outstanding in every respect, and his own gradual descent into madness is one of the best parts of the show.
And, finally, keep an eye out for the ending: it’s a special treat to hear a Fringe audience gasp and stutter with genuine surprise.
- July 06 05:45 PM
- July 07 11:00 PM
- July 09 02:45 PM
- July 11 05:15 PM
- July 12 08:00 PM
- July 13 08:45 PM
- Tickets for all Mainstage productions are $10 at the door, cash only.
- Advance tickets are $11, and can be purchased online, by phone (416-966-1062 ext. 1), or from the festival box office at the Fringe Club. (Rear of Honest Ed’s, 581 Bloor St. West)
- Money-saving value packs are also available; see website for details.
- LATECOMERS ARE NEVER ADMITTED TO FRINGE SHOWS. To avoid disappointment, be sure to arrive a few minutes before curtain.
Photograph of (clockwise from bottom) Lesley Robertson, Nicole Wilson and Renée Haché by Nicholas Porteous.