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Building A 19th Century Vibrator

Above: A scene from "In the Next Room or the vibrator play" at San Diego Rep. Willow Geer as Mrs. Daldry, Lisel Gorell-Getz as Annie, Francis Gercke as Dr. Givings (holding the female vibrator).

Last night was a fairly unusual night at the theater. The lovely Kelly Bennett and I met at the Lyceum to see San Diego Rep's production of Sarah Ruhl's critically beloved play "In the Next Room or the vibrator play."

That wasn't the unusual part. We settled into our seats and opened our press packets to find...a timeline of vibrator history! Best.Press.Packet.Ever.

Ruhl's play, directed at the Rep by Sam Woodhouse, takes place in the late 1800s in upstate New York, just after Edison discovers electricity. A gynecologist named Dr. Givings (a hilarious turn by Francis Gercke) begins treating women for hysteria with an electronic vibrator of his own design. Not surprisingly, his patients make great strides but require ongoing treatment.

In the 19th century, women were actually treated for hysteria (a common diagnosis for a hodgepodge of symptoms) with "massage therapy treatment" to achieve "hysterical paroxysm" in patients. A man named George Taylor patented the first steam-powered vibrator in 1869.

Two different vibrators were built for "In the Next Room" and both look like they were designed by sex-crazed steampunks. Actually, they were built by SD Rep's prop mistress, Angelica Ynfante.

I called Ynfante to find out how she gathered all the...ahem...parts for these devices. Apparently she bought almost everything she needed online and at Home Depot (steampunks, take note). No clandestine trips to the adult toy store were necessary.

Ynfante used parts from a personal body massager and a pneumatic hand drill to construct the crucial tips. Ynfante says the most challenging part was "creating something that will last for a whole four week run." Just to clarify, these are obviously props and not working devices.

One of the vibrators in the play is based on a real vibrator design from the turn of the century called the Chattanooga, referred to in a New York Times article as the "Cadillac of vibrators", which cost $200 in 1904. Ynfante was able to find images online and she worked with specialists at the Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco to make sure the Chattanooga was historically accurate.

Ynfante told me that the big box comprising the base of the female vibrator (see picture above) actually disguises a speaker that broadcasts the vibrator sound (you know the one).

The vibrator scenes for "In the Next Room" are quite funny, so the props are key. Serious props to Ynfante for the detailed designs.

To learn more about the costume design for "In The Next Room or the vibrator play" check out Kelly's story on Voice of San Diego. For a critic's take on the production, check out Jim Hebert's review for the U-T and hear Hebert and Pam Kragen from the North County Times talk about it on our own These Days.

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