“God Help Me” might be a useful sub-title for Madeleine George’s tough play Hurricane Diane, now at the Old Globe Theatre.
In it, the author takes on a dizzy range of world problems –climate, food, gender identity, housing, government, information flow, emergency management, even pronoun use – and emphatically addresses all of them with few solutions but lots of passion. And the lusty assistance of Dionysus, one of the 12 gods still up there on Mount Olympus.
(OK, first some housekeeping. Though this god goes by the character name Diane, that in no way implies a connection with the virgin goddess of the hunt. Nope, no virginity here. This god introduces them self – hang on here – as “God of agriculture, wine and song.” That’s not the usual list. Kind of bumps into the territory of Artemis. Leaves out the wine, which this god patronizes under the name Bacchus. But, whatever. Mythology is nothing if not flexible.)
This Dionysus, resplendent in purple-accented god outfit, enters informing us that things on Mount Olympus are dull, just chilling out “… for all time by the Flame of Eternal Boredom.” So the solution has been a sustainability landscaping business in Vermont, “…living off the grid with a bunch of lesbian separatists in consensus-based community.”
All too obviously, though, Earth needs help. So Dionysus, who has rather missed all the pomp and privilege of divinity through the last many centuries, has decided to again come out as a god and pay a restorative visit to mankind before it’s too late.
To a classicist, this will sound vaguely familiar. It’s an up-to-date variation on the opening monologue of The Bacchae, a big hit in 405 B.C. for Euripides. Not to deploy spoilers, that one ends badly, with a leading character being ripped limb from limb by Dionysus’ female followers. But this version, with only five actors, doesn’t climax with graphic violence.
Just something much more horrible.
As a starting point for a new era, this Dionysus has chosen a suburban tract in New Jersey where four fidgety women inhabit four identical kitchens in one cul-de-sac and four dissimilar lives. It takes four acolytes to launch a cult, says D., but once that’s done, the rescue will spread like a wildfire across the fruited plains.
And it starts with landscaping, with ripping out these lawns and planting some native permaculture. Early on in Hurricane Diane it becomes obvious that all will depend upon the impact of the actor in the leading role. The Greeks considered Dionysus the most feminine of men and the most masculine of women, so there’s plenty of precedent. And, since the god also rules revelry and chaos, there’s plenty of room for contemporary gender-bending celebration.
In a stroke of fabulous casting, the Globe has hired Rami Margron, a sturdy, handsome actor with flashing eyes and tons of self-confident presence to play a role where sensuality counts, not specific gender. I have no idea of Margron’s personal preferences, nor is that any of my business. As an artist, though, they/she/he is thoroughly convincing to me/me/me. The air should crackle when Dionysus is present, and that it does. This is what we mean by the label “romantic lead.”
It soon seems that the four targets, being mere mortals, haven’t a chance. One by one, they’re sucked into the god’s tunnel vision until… Well, things have changed over the eons. It seems there may be problems beyond the powers even of gods.
Playwright Madeleine George displays a commendable skill in handling heavy subjects with a light touch. Sinister and sexy, grandiose and goofy, director James Vasquez is right there with her, tickling in the details and fluffing up the generalities. Together, they create a whole supporting unseen cast, described and interacting, from phone calls, verbal reports and shouts into the exits.
The housewives read as a check-off list of today’s woke women. Jennifer Paredes is a kid, just deserted by her husband, growing brittle, anxious and fragile; Jenn Harris strides, pushes and shouts as an aggressive caricature from those “real housewives of…” television shows; Opal Alladin is gliding upward in the click-bait magazine business but haunted by old-crush memories; while Liz Wisan, steely in defense of her Big Pharm employer (“Those victims were extravagantly compensated.”) and obsessively detailed in her own fantasies, is anchored like a barnacle.
Before the play ends, a majority of these women are Bacchae writhing in bloodthirsty lust. As Camille Paglia has written, “The Dionysian is no picnic.”
Threaded through the play is the approaching Category 3 hurricane, moving even louder and faster than Dionysus and possible with more emphatic results. The metaphor starts to tangle here but the sound effects (Drew Levy) are certainly impressive as the god hustles to redo the shrubbery and the housewives. And the storm contributes to a hell of a climax (add music from Golden Howl) and a chilling coda by Bacchae become Chorus.
The one sterile kitchen serves for all four homes (identical floorplans in this development) and gives set designer Jo Winiarski just enough room for creeping plastic foliage and a major hurricane whack. There’s a lot of wit in Shirley Pierson’s costumes, which yield readily at orgy time. Could have used more such playfulness from Cat Tate Starmer’s lighting, which missed a big entrance, a bigger ending and some juicy black-out opportunities.
This play in this staging with these actors, however, could be done in rehearsal blacks and still be a hoot. An ominous hoot, true, but in these days of growing dread, there’s not much to be had other than ominous. And that probably includes pronouns.
(Continues in the Old Globe’s White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through March 8, 2020.)