Hysteria and Lobster Telephone both pay tribute to mustachioed surrealist

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a candid photograph of Salvador Dalí. In every picture I’ve ever seen of him, the celebrated surrealist painter is intensely self-conscious, with the emphasis on “intense”; he’s always staring down the camera, the two halves of his famed moustache erect and quivering like antennae, his eyes ablaze with crazed passion, as if the awe-inspiring experience of merely being Salvador Dalí has driven him insane—and being insane has in turn propelled him to even greater heights of genius. So what I’m saying is, the guy took a helluva good photograph.

Dalí was never embarrassed about promoting himself, and so he’d probably be glad to hear that he’s an important character in not just one but two very different stage productions currently playing in Edmonton: in Terry Johnson’s Hysteria at Studio Theatre, he pays a visit to the London office of his idol, Sigmund Freud; and he also pops up in several scenes in Panties Productions’ sketch comedy show Lobster Telephone, which is named after one of Dalí’s sculptures. (Coincidentally, a lobster telephone also appears in Hysteria.) Johnson forces Dalí to endure much more surreal punishment than the Panties do—in Hysteria, Dalí gets kicked in the crotch and smacked by a swan, while Lobster Telephone ends with Dalí in a state of utter contentment, eating slices of ham out of a woman’s hat while Death waltzes around his chair in the arms of a female ape.

Death is present in Hysteria, too: the story takes place in 1939, when Freud was in the final, agonizingly painful stages of bone cancer, which had already claimed half his jaw. “Dalí really did come to visit Freud in London,” says David Allan King, who’s directing Hysteria as part of his M.F.A. directing thesis at the U of A drama department. “The play is sort of based on some letters about that meeting that Freud wrote, as well as some paintings and notes that Dalí created. Dalí said when he saw Freud in that last year, he felt like it was the death of surrealism—his guru was dying. And in the play, Dalí’s comfort is in getting an assessment of his mentality at this point in his life. It’s interesting: at first, Freud thought Dalí was a crackpot like everybody else, but apparently his opinion was quite changed by the experience of Dalí being there.” Indeed, Freud greatly admired Dalí’s passion and technical skill and even wound up endorsing Dalí as the surrealist movement’s only interesting artist; Dalí would return the favour years later in an etching with the self-explanatory title “Freud With Snail-Head.”

But Hysteria is much more interested in the inner workings of Freud’s mind than Dalí’s. “I see the whole play as jumping around inside Freud’s brain and rattling around in there for a couple of hours,” King says. “It works on so many levels. It starts out very dramatically, with the appearance of this mysterious young woman at Freud’s office, and then when there’s no place for the tension to go, it shifts into a new direction, into this ’50s-style British sex farce of the kind Johnson loves so well. And Johnson loves sex and loves women, and he’s paralleling the rules of those old sex farces with all those sexualized theories of Freud’s—and it works so well. And then the farce builds and builds, and then when there’s nowhere else for that to go, we go into surrealism. And when there’s nowhere for the surrealism to go, it ends in tragedy.”

Hysteria ends with a wildly ambitious extended dream sequence full of startling metamorphoses and disturbing Dalí-inspired imagery, complete with corpses, crutches and melting clocks. It’s a huge technical challenge for King as well as his actors and designers, and if the results are even half as entertaining as the surreal musical segues in Lobster Telephone, they should be pleased with themselves. (I particularly liked the one where Belinda Cornish and Celina Stachow came out onstage, each carrying a glass of milk, and then launched into a furious stepdance, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were sloshing milk all over the stage.)

This is a really solid, funny sketch comedy show, excelling both at old-fashioned skits like “Speed Trap” (in which a man complains to a policeman that the photo accompanying his speeding ticket is actually just a crude stick-figure cartoon) to wilder stuff like “Inside the Actor’s Box” (a celebrity interview that devolves into increasingly bizarre questions about apes). Not everything works—inevitably, there are a couple of premises here that don’t catch fire, but even in the less successful sketches you can see a real comic intelligence at work.

And, like Sweet Zombie Jesus! (the terrific sketch show Gordon’s Big Bald Head did at the Fringe last summer), Lobster Telephone feels like a cohesive production with a unified style and a sense of flow between scenes instead of just a collection of random sketches. Instead of the T-shirts-and-khakis look favoured by Theatresports performers, Cornish and Stachow do the entire show in ’60s hairdos, white minidresses and go-go boots (and they look fantastic in them), while Mark Meer wears a stylish suit and a detachable Dalí mustache—I love the notion that sketch comedy is something elegant that you should try and dress up for. I’m sure Dalí would demand nothing less. V


Directed by David Allan King • Written by Terry Johnson • Starring Jon Baggeley, Robert McKoen and Lora Brovold • Timms Centre for the Arts (U of A) • May 19-28 • 420-1757

Lobster Telephone
Written by Jocelyn Ahlf, Belinda Cornish, Mark Meer and Celina Stachow • Starring Belinda Cornish, Mark Meer and Celina Stachow • Azimuth Theatre (11315-106 Ave) • To May 30 • 454-0583