Dionysus was one hell of a god. His credits include: god of wine-making, harvest and wine; of fertility, ritual madness and religious ecstasy; not to mention theater. Like most legends and deities of Greek mythology, his history and influence are fluid, subject to interpretation and interpreter. With such wide-ranging attributes, one can imagine that he must play a role in many others’ stories. The Wilma Theater’s Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man focuses on his distant yet direct bearing on the Oedipus tale, adding modern twists and settings in this impactful retelling.
An unnamed messenger (who, if not Hermes, at least bears some of his qualities) introduces the tale of a baby who was left in the care of a shepherd and his family, discarded by his royal parents due to a prophecy involving marrying his mother and murdering his father. This is not the baby’s story, however; this is the story of that shepherd, Polybus, and his wife Merope and daughter Alcinoe. When the messenger, played with seamless range by Matteo Scammell, brings news of Oedipus’s ascension to the throne following a five-year absence, the family’s reactions are mixed.
Here’s where Dionysus gets involved, in a god-like way. Wine flows, beer flows even more, and inhibitions fall. Polybus (Luverne Seifert) fluctuates from joyful to murderous to suicidal when he feels tossed aside by his adopted son. Upon learning of a plague that’s affecting her livestock, Alcinoe (Taysha Marie Canales) loses all hope and, with help from wine, judgement. The messenger, who has fallen for Alcinoe, commits an unspeakable act under the spell of wine and, in his mind, love.
Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man marks the first production created by the Wilma HotHouse, an “incubator for artists, artistic exploration, learning, and practice,” whose end-result is fully realized pieces for the Wilma stage. Playwright Kate Tarker wrote the script, but as a whole, it was developed with the help of Lecoq alum Dominique Serrand, who directed this piece. The outcome is a gestalt in which no one element can exist alone. The performances transcend Tarker’s written words, but the words mix poetry and quips in ways that allow the actors to transcend the stage.
Speaking of the stage, the two-story set, designed by Kristen Robinson elicits both the stifling claustrophobia of a small house and the liberating expanse of greenery and hills. But as the play bears out, the outside tends to be where the problems are: lies and danger and distrust, and home is where one is free to be oneself.
The free-flowing script invites interpretation from the audience in the first act; whom can you trust? Who is telling the truth? Whom do you like? Whom are you supposed to trust and like? The second act answers these questions, in a manner that is jarringly overt in comparison with the setup. If, at intermission, there are any questions about the direction of Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man and its relevance to today’s society, they are addressed quickly, and a subplot is thrust into the forefront, but it takes a backseat to an episode between Oedipus (Keith J. Conallen) and his adopted mother. Rather than wrap these loose ends into a bow or at least a knot, the show ends with an unsatisfying moral.
Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man is further evidence that stories and characters of old are not only timeless; they are fair game for revisiting and revision. On a whiteboard outside of the theater, guests are invited to write what Dionysus means to them, and each of the answers that I saw were different. The Wilma’s interpretation may not necessarily enter the canon of Greek mythology, but it’s a creative and relevant chapter in an endless book.
For tickets and more information, visit https://www.wilmatheater.org
Photos by Johanna Austina/AustinArt.Org