Augustine (Big Hysteria)

A thought-provoking drama about a 19th-century "hysteric" victimized by a misguided psychoanalyst

The Shee Theatre Company makes a grand entrance into the San Francisco scene this week with English playwright Anna Furse's semibiographical account of a late-19th-century "hysteric." The historical character Augustine, documented as a 15-year-old housemaid who went mad with hysteria, was placed under the care of a big-shot Parisian neurologist, Professor Jean-Martin Charcot, who experimented on and displayed her in his very own lunatic asylum, aptly called the "Museum of Suffering." The play begins with a chilling scene of Augustine writhing in anguish on her bed of misery inside the hospital, and follows her gross deterioration as Charcot pricks her with needles, hypnotizes her, and tortures her with excessive doses of random drugs, including liberal prescriptions for "ovarian compression." Her symptoms (which only worsen with treatment) are rage, incoherence, epileptic fits, colorblindness, and sharp pains beneath her breasts and across her lower abdomen. While Charcot is entirely transfixed on what he sees as a bizarre physical manifestation of insanity, a young Sigmund Freud -- seen here, fictitiously, as a student of Charcot's -- begins to challenge the professor's theories on grand hystérie with his own psychoanalysis and dream interpretations. A solid piece of compelling and thought-provoking drama, Augustine is a piercing snapshot of a frighteningly misogynous era of medical history during which women were treated -- and paraded around -- like lab rats. Under Virginia Reed's impeccable direction, the cast of four proves an explosive ensemble, with the mesmerizing Laura Hope (as Augustine) at its helm. Reed makes good use of the playing space, bringing photographs, live violin music, and well-choreographed dances of madness into the Exit's petite arena. The woman-centered Shee company's debut production hits the bull's-eye with this meaningful exploration, and sets high expectations for its future endeavors.

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