The world premiere of Kate Tarker’s Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man, now onstage at the Wilma, reminds me that one of the biggest challenges of doing “classical” theater (and plenty of contemporary theater) is the lack of interesting, nuanced, central roles for women.
That’s why nearly any Shakespeare play you go see will have women or nonbinary actors playing roles traditionally reserved for men. But when you go back further, to Greek drama, there are a surprising number of roles for women. Though things don’t usually end well for them, characters like Antigone and Medea and Clytemnestra are compelling nonetheless, their identities as women central to the stories in which they feature.
Which is one of the (many) reasons why Dionysus left me scratching my head. With all of the wronged women of Greek tragedy to choose from, why did Tarker decide to use the male-centric Oedipus Rex as the framing for a play whose entire second act is steeped in the #MeToo movement?
New take, old story
I have seen so many new takes on Oedipus over the years. There was the one staged at a skate park. And the one that engaged the audience in a drinking game. I think there was one at a hair salon, too, but that might have been Antigone.
But these adaptations always kept the basic structure of the Sophocles narrative, in which the tragic king dominates the story. Tarker takes a different approach, telling the Oedipus story from the perspective of his adoptive parents, Polybus and Merope, much the same way that Tom Stoppard revisited Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (except, of course, that while we actually meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet, Polybus and Merope are only spoken of in Oedipus Rex).
Unfortunately, the execution fails. As Polybus, Luverne Seifert is supremely unlikeable, stomping and grunting around the stage, pissed off at the world for reasons never explored beyond “my son is embarrassed by me.” The only thing I could think of, watching him onstage, was Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black (“Give me sugar!”). I don’t know which character choices came from Seifert, Tarker, or director Dominique Serrand, but I’m not sure it matters. I hated every moment that Polybus was onstage—which was almost the entire first act.
Melanye Finister’s Merope is far better, if only because her acting never made me squirm like Seifert’s did. Hints of nuance in her performance make it clear she’d fare well in a stronger play. But for all the ups and downs required by the script, the part is nevertheless quite static.
The two strongest performances in Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man belong to Matteo Scammell as the messenger and Taysha Marie Canales as Alcinoe (Polybus and Merope’s daughter). Scammel is the first person we see onstage, addressing the audience before the house lights are fully dimmed, but it’s his in-scene performance rather than these moments of direct address that work well. He’s charming and funny and gives Finister and Seifert something to respond to that isn’t their echo chamber. And Canales, playing the only character with any real depth, handles the absurd parts of her role (throwing “sheep” off the roof of her house) as ably as the more emotional moments.
The bed, the cow, the trial
Early in the first act, the Messenger declares his love for Alcinoe, despite having barely spoken with her. Then, after a lot of conversation between Alcinoe, Polybus, and Merope about whether Oedipus is or isn’t the worst and various plans for violence that don’t make enough sense to be upsetting, the Messenger arrives to tell us that he had been in the process of seducing Alcinoe at the exact moment that a cow fell through the roof and crushed Polybus in his bed. Beyond the possible connotations of the word seducing, there’s no indication that it was nonconsensual… but that incident informs the entire second act, set 10 years later.
I really wish that the entire play centered on this trial, rather than it feeling shoehorned into the second half of the second act, because it really is compelling. Defending herself, Alcinoe shows up drunk to give her closing statement, to prove the absurdity of the Messenger’s “the booze made me do it” defense. (By the way, at no point in the first act is the Messenger presented as drunk—I think he drinks a single beer?) Canales brings necessary comic relief to the tension of the moment. And Scammel plays the Messenger in this scene as every smug white man credibly accused of rape but released due to his “promising future.” The verdict is sadly familiar, but the fallout that comes after this scene seems unearned.
Please be advised that I’m barely scratching the “WTF” surface here. At intermission, my companion asked me what I thought so far, and I said, “I don’t know what I’m watching.” The play had its moments, and I even laughed a few times, but looking at the half-full theater around me, it seemed that the audience who stuck around after intermission (several did not) were perhaps trapped in a real-life version of The Emperor’s New Clothes: of course I’m enjoying this thing I spent money on, even if I don’t actually get it.
I do have to compliment Kristen Robinson on her two-tiered, largely AstroTurf set, though. Ultimately, and unfortunately, it was the most interesting part of the entire show.
What, When, Where
Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man. By Kate Tarker, directed by Dominique Serrand. Through May 12, 2019, at the Wilma Theater, 265 Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.
The Wilma Theater is an ADA-compliant venue.