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Theater Review: Freud on Cocaine

Freud on Cocaine ensemble. Photo by Darren Rafel.

A show is a journey and, as its title suggests, Freud on Cocaine, is a doozy of a trip. It’s a drug-laced, disco-infused romp through the late 1890s, a time when Bayer sold heroin and Merck sold cocaine. It’s also a serious look at a well-known doctor’s developing beliefs in a less-well-known time.

Before he became known as the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Jonathan Slavin) was a neuropathologist who came to see cocaine as the ultimate pain killer, mood enhancer and energy boost—as well as a cure for morphine addiction. He published a treatise, Uber Coca, in a Viennese medical journal, documenting his personal experience injecting liquid cocaine. Uber Coca was later published as The Cocaine Papers, with notes by Freud’s daughter Anna; that book is the basis for this unique roller coaster ride, written and directed by Howard Skora.

Without an FDA to perform long-term testing, Freud depended on his own experience and the experiences of others close to him, including his wife Martha (Sara Maraffino), peer Dr. Ernst Von Fleischl-Marxow (Aaron laPlante) and patient Emma Eckstein (Amy Smallman-Winston). All bring massive quantities of humor and pathos to their performances, beautifully transitioning from their pre-snort neuroses (Emma, for example, suffered from “an agonizing melancholy”) to dancing, jubilant believers, and then to addicts with varying degrees of self-awareness.

Aaron laPlante and Jonathan Slavin in Freud on Cocaine. Photo by Darren Rafel.

Freud’s fellow cocaine afficionados describe their cocaine experiences as “tingly” and “spicy”—at least at first. The first act of Freud on Cocaine is an ode to coke, as he predicts every therapist will use cocaine as a cure for depression. He even becomes a spokesman for the purveyors of this miracle cure. Von Fleischl-Marxow notes, “Drug companies need doctors to push their products…What could go wrong?” (He provides a hint when he accuses Freud of becoming “a little grandiose” when on coke.)

Jonathan Slavin and Sara Maraffino in Freud on Cocaine. Photo by Darren Rafel.

The second act reveals what could go wrong. The mood shifts and the players transition to confronting the realities of pharmaceutical panaceas, belief in all-knowing doctors and human frailty writ large. All in all, it’s a cautionary tale and a journey worth taking.

The show inspires Googling and even browsing Spotify for the songs. The opening instrumentals of “White Rabbit,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Love Hangover” are well-employed, although sometimes overpower the actors’ speech.

Freud on Cocaine can be seen Saturdays at 8:00pm through Nov. 4 (dark Oct. 21) at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks. Tickets are $40-50 and are available here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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