Guru or crackpot, scientist or visionary lunatic, martyr or holistic saint -- none of these combos does justice to Austrian psychologist-philosopher Wilhelm Reich. For a time in his always varied life, he embodied them all. He is, perhaps, the only writer to have his works burned by both the Nazis and the U.S. government. Reich's very real persecution complex drove him mad, and he died in prison. In Theatre Illuminata's grunge production of Robert Anton Wilson's 1987 musical play about this dazzling, demented soul, Wilhelm Reich in Hell, Reich's far-out teachings are dusted off and given a sympathetic, anarchic retelling. It's theater for the thinking set.
A onetime protégé of Freud's, Reich fell out with the master over their divergent sexual theories. In fact, he fell out with just about everyone he ever worked with. His Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) turned the Nazis against him. Later, the communists, with whom he earlier had sympathized, were scandalized by his frank talk about the "life force" of orgasms. And when Reich claimed to have discovered the cure to just about every human disease with his "emotional plague" theory, the world's scientific community dismissed him as a deluded charlatan. Humiliated and hounded, Reich spent the last three years of his life in federal prison at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he was confined after violating the FDA's ban on his controversial cancer cure: the "orgone box accelerator."
In Theatre Illuminata's free-spirited production, we enter the hell of Reich's convoluted mind, as he's brought to trial in an Alice in Wonderland-like courtroom presided over by a randy Satan in the guise of the Circus Ringmaster (Tony Salinas). In an exquisite irony, his prosecutors are the infamous twins of sexual perversion: the sadistic Marquis de Sade (Noel Bowers) and the masochistic Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (Thunder Denton). As clowns in what Reich calls this "circus," the two present the state's evidence against Reich through vaudeville sketches and video projections. When he isn't being cited for contempt and made to bark like a dog or wear a dunce cap, Reich attempts to rebut the evidence. It doesn't matter that his arguments are cogent and rational; the case is stacked against him from the outset.
In a semi-biographical manner, Reich's life and work are laid out, although not much is made of either Freud, who would have been a natural for playwright Wilson to have some fun with, or the notorious orgone box. We're instead treated to a condensed version of Reich's seminal theory of the "natural plague," which he credits with all the ills of mankind. This is the bedrock of the play.
Reich's "natural plague" theory supposes that all men are good, and that in our natural state, there are no moral relevancies -- we're animals who have subjected ourselves to unnatural boundaries and laws. We invented good and evil; it is not intrinsic within us. But by shielding ourselves in an "emotional iron suit of armor," we confine and warp our real selves. We can no longer breathe properly; the tension racks our bodies; we deform our very core. Reich's theory would prove to be the beginning of holistic medicine, and had he stayed in this area of research and development, he might not be so vilified. But he kept pushing the limits and went right over the edge into the abyss with his inane "orgone" inventions that smack of pseudo-science.
The production strikes a false note when playwright Wilson brings on Marilyn Monroe as the epitome of the natural state. Although lovingly conjured by Melissa Winter, who wears that totemic white dress from The Seven Year Itch, there's no way in hell we're going to believe that Reich would've used Monroe to illustrate the antidote to the "natural plague." The lovely, talented Monroe had a body suit of armor tailor-made to her scrumptious measurements. She was the least free of all. Her inner demons ate her alive, and nothing Wilson says -- with the mouth of Reich -- convinces otherwise.
Original rock songs by John Duboise are interspersed throughout the proceedings, and if the overamplification and rock-star wailings garble the lyrics, Duboise's intentions come through loud and clear. Dan Braverman makes an exceptional, self-deluded Reich, spewing out his defense with just the right amount of paranoid virtue and singleness of purpose. The others in the fine cast rise to his level, especially the aforementioned Winter as an assured, whispery Marilyn Monroe, Tony Salinas as a randy Ringmaster/Satan and Noel Bowers as a pompous, blustery Marquis de Sade. Certainly in tone, this crazy quilt of a show is in sync with Reich. It's as counterculture as he was.
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