“Heroines” and “In the Next Room” – February 4, 2015

In Victorian England, the unhappy wife of a repressed doctor yearns to feel alive – and finally takes matters into her own hands. In an imaginary steam-punk version of Victorian England, a band of brave, opera-singing women similarly yearn to be happy, free – and a little bit naughty – and they make it happen through the power of song. In East Berlin, Germany, a mysterious woman with a powerful secret survives against impossible odds, ultimately becoming an inspiration to a young American journalist. She survives through the power of her own belief in herself.

In three productions either currently running or about to open in the North Bay, the concept of “gender” is just the tip of the iceberg in stories that challenge us, the audience, to look beneath the surface of some amazing human beings – some real, some fictional – all with something to show us we might not be expecting.

Let’s start with “Heroines,” opening tomorrow night at Sonoma State University.

This one is a brand new original musical review featuring classic operetta tunes from the likes of Bertolt Brecht, Franz Lehar, Gilbert & Sullivan and others. It was created by musical director Lynn Morrow and stage director Jane Irwin Hammett, who appropriately titled their piece, “Heroines.” Set during a time of radical change in England, when women were demanding the vote and a whole lot more, the piece pulls famous females from out of other stories and throws them all together. Due to a magical twist of time, these women from various centuries join forces to express their feelings through indelible songs borrowed from shows like “The Threepenny Opera,” “The Merry Widow,” and other musical masterpieces, and number from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. In a fantasy version of London, these iconic characters come together in a city blending visuals from Dickens with ideas from Jules Verne, joining their hearts and voices in a revolutionary effort to break the shackles of tradition and inequality.

Sounds fun, huh?

New shows deserve our support, and SSU, in recent years, has made a strong effort to present at least one original show a year. And with voices recruited from SSU’s Departments of Music and Theater Arts & Dance, this is a production that probably will sound like a blast of pure operatic dynamite – and then some.

Meanwhile, At Cinnabar Theater, Doug Wright’s Pulitzer-winning one-actor drama “I Am My Own Wife” introduces audiences to a different kind of heroine: the real-life Charlotte von Mahlsdorff, a transgender woman whose courage – and possibly a bit of treasonous duplicity – allowed her to escape Hitler’s concentration camps, and survive, in her own way, operating a small museum under the noses of her enemies, all during the communist party’s decades-long reign of suspicion and terror.

I’ll be reviewing it in full next week.

And finally, there’s Sarah Ruhl’s eye-opening drama, “In the Next Room,” subtitled, “The Vibrator Play.” This is a daring move for the usually fairly reserved Raven Players. The play looks at the marriage of a late Victorian woman and her husband, a doctor specializing in the treatment of hysterical women. He has been using a new treatment, made possible through the power of electricity, which seems to leave his patience extremely happy, and eager for their next appointment. It only his wife could become the focus of his attentions, she – and maybe even he – could find what is missing in their lives.

Gorgeously written by Ruhl, it’s a love story with a jolt of raw truth, another story of what happens when strong women are given the power they need to take control of their own destinies, their own happiness, their own world.

“I Am My Own Wife” runs February 6-22 at Cinnabar Theater, cinnabartheater.org.

“Heroines” runs February 5-15 in the Evert B. Person Theater at Sonoma State University, Sonoma.edu.

“In the Next Room” (or “The Vibrator Play”) runs through February 14 at Raven Theater, Raventheater.org

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