What is theater but an exercise in mind control? Night after night, susceptible audiences succumb to the belief that a few chairs represent a car; that a brief pause indicates the passage of years; that the people onstage are actually other people, with other lives and other names. It’s no surprise that mesmerism and hypnotism once found popularity onstage.
One of the strangest practitioners of those arts was Erik Jan Hanussen, the elliptical subject of Hypnotik: The Seer Will Doctor You Now, a new play by Colm O’Shea, Marie Glancy O’Shea, and Ildiko Nemeth now showing at Theater for the New City. Hanussen, born Hermann Steinschneider and hailed as “Europe’s greatest oracle since Nostradamus,” made a vast fortune as a mind-reader and hypnotist (as well as an inventor of “sex creme”) in pre–World War II Berlin, occasionally favoring Hitler with his clairvoyant talents. Unfortunately, he couldn’t predict his own death, courtesy of several SA agents who owed him money.
Before his fall, Hanussen opened the performance venue and supernatural shrine the Palace of the Occult, described by his biographer Mel Gordon as “pure extravagance: gold leaf and Carrara marble covered nearly every surface, and inscribed on the palace’s doors and passageways were mystic and astrological signs from the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian pantheon.” Hypnotik takes place on a typical night in this Palace, albeit a somewhat less-opulent version. (The New Stage Theatre Company does what it can with plywood, small lightbulbs, and high-gloss paint.)
Amid these trappings, a seer (Peter B. Schmitz) invites several guests onstage and hypnotizes them, revealing their inner psychodramas to an eager audience. As a chorus of girls dressed as dominos coo during the opening number, choreographed by impish Terpsichore Julie Atlas Muz, the seer will, “heal all of you invalids,/end all of your clawing needs,/he comes to humiliate, to rehabilitate,/he wants you to deviate, so he can alleviate.”
Under his influence, the characters vomit their unconscious: The upright lieutenant (Brandon Olson) fears impotence, the starlet-turned-housewife (Kaylin Lee Clinton) fantasizes infanticide, a widowed baroness (the ever excellent Sarah Lemp) thirsts for an erotic life, the movie director (Chris Tanner) longs to excoriate his critics. The seer calls these episodes “a peep show of horrors.” In truth, that terror never manifests. These scenes have the feel of a Bauhaus drama therapy session, played out with repetitive rhythms and tones. And why is everyone wearing unitards?
Nemeth has explored this period before in Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls! And the subject of hypnotism in Some Historic/Some Hysteric. Yet it’s not entirely clear what she and her co-writers intend with Hypnotik. The script teems with poetic passages, and several of the performances are strong, but the evening feels more stylish than substantial, borrowing from too many genres, using more words when fewer would do. And Schmitz lacks the charisma an oracle demands, though a play-ending twist somewhat explains this deficit. With its glitter and gauze and occasional lyricism, Hypnotik offers a glitzy expressionist nightmare, but one that’s all too easy to wake from.