Sarah Ruhl is one of America’s current sweethearts of contemporary theatre. You may know her for her award winning works Passion Play, Dead Man’s Cellphone and perhaps most famously, The Next Room or The Vibrator Play (2009). Though I’ve never seen her work live, I spent some time studying it yesterday. It didn’t take long for me to be charmed by her and I think I know why.
For one thing, and to the pleasure of most modern American audiences, Ruhl often questions the line between fantasy and reality. She does this by exploring ways in which technology has restricted us from actual intimate human interaction. For example, Ruhl constantly questions our Promethean response to our bodies. In A Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a woman obtains the cell phone of a man she found dead in café and she uses the cell phone to become somewhat of a mediary between the man and his family. My absolute favorite character in the show is the man’s mother who continues to call the cellphone just so she can interact with the voicemail and then, when his voice is removed from the phone by his mistress, she stops calling it because her intimate bond with him is finally gone.
Another great example of this theme is The Next Room or The Vibrator Play. In this piece, Ruhl has reimagined the 19th century wherein electricity was just invented. The play centers around a doctor who uses vibrators to induce orgasms in his patients in order to cure hysteria. A bold example is when the doctor’s main female patient stops reacting to the doctor inducing orgasm and begins to only react to his female nurses’s touch. The discovery that personal touch is better than mechanical or medical intervention clearly leads the audience to appreciate Ruhl’s conclusions.
Other themes explored by Ruhl include the economy of the body and the construction of identities. However, despite these being large and heavy topics. Ruhl has a very graceful way of avoiding writing very heavy plays. She’s incredibly well informed but she doesn’t bother to throw all of her intelligence into the piece. Instead, she allows the characters to tell us the story and, through, story we receive information and understand themes. There is nothing prescriptive, nothing preachy, about her writing even though she’s tackling huge themes. Her characters, though in states of exploration are humble and uncertain making them a little clumsy, cute and overall funny.
If you haven’t checked out Ruhl’s work yet, today’s your day. She has a number of works that have come on in the past short while. Notably, Eurydice will be produced by "A Noice Within Theatre" this coming May in Pasadena, CA. (http://www.anoisewithin.org/play/eurydice/)
Watch clips here of Ruhl's work online
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