The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Because ‘Nice’ is a Trap: ‘Dionysus was such a Nice Man’ West Coast premiere at foolsFURY

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“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice. The damage is done. No one can undo it.”
– Chanel Miller to her rapist, Brock Turner, shortly before Turner was given a lenient sentence
(30 March 2016)

*[WARNING: Both this review and the show it covers address the topics of sexual assault, molestation, and incest.]

So… let’s talk about sexual assault and Greek tragedy. It’s really impossible to talk of the

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Shepherdess Alcinoe (Jordan María Don) has nothing but possibility before her. Photo by Ben Yalom.

latter without addressing the former. One is hard-pressed to think of a classic Greek tale that doesn’t have someone violated. The reason for that is the ancient Greeks didn’t regard rape as “wrong”, per se. They thought it less of a person doing a bad thing, but more admiring of the will to do such a thing. I used to take part in a local theatre festival based on Greek myth, and from the start we had to deal with the fact whether we were writing comedies or tragedies, researching the original tales would inevitably get uncomfortable, because the majority of those tales involve rape.

Speaking of comedy: rape jokes. It is possible to make good rape jokes, provided you’re not using rape itself as a punchline the way a magician says “Ta-da!”. It also helps if you mock rape culture, not rape victims. I’m sorry I can’t recall her name, but some years back, a female comedian had a routine about walking alone at night and thinking someone was following her. She embarrassingly says to herself, “Oh my God, this is what I’m wearing when I get raped?” Dark, yes, but a fine example of the strange places our minds travel to during heightened anxiety. And then there’s the Oscar-nominated film The Favourite, which features chambermaid Abigail (Emma Stone) having her bedroom broken into by the “romantic” Mr. Masham:

Abigail: “Have you come to seduce me or rape me?”
Masham (offended): “I am a gentleman!”
Abigail: “So, rape then.”

 

“What the hell,” you’re likely now asking, “has any of this to do with the new show foolsFURY just opened?” Well, it throws all these topics together into a somewhat imperfect package sprung from the mind of playwright Kate Tarker. She decided to take the story of Oedipus – that oh-so charming tale – and set it in a contemporary context. A world in which Oedipus’ adoptive parents, Polybus and Merope (Ryan Hill and Debórah Eliezer, respectively), think they’re on easy street now that their son’s the new king, only for a dorky Messenger (Joshua Waterstone) to tell them the king wants nothing to do with them. It’s a world in which the couple’s other adoptee, Alcinoe (Jordan María Don), melodramatically weeps over suicidal sheep (yes, really). And yes, it’s a world in which if you’re raped by a “Nice Guy”, the joke is on you if you think there’s justice.

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Polybus (Ryan Hill) and Merope (Debórah Eliezer) just found out their son isn’t coming home. Guess who dealt with it better? Photo by Ben Yalom.

That’s a lot, I know – and I haven’t even mentioned Polybus wanting to kill Oedipus for the snub, Merope wanting to make Polybus’ 50th birthday a shameless bacchanal, or how the Messenger takes to Alcinoe like a puppy following a dripping bloody steak.

I didn’t want to mention all of that because it’s a bit hard to keep track of all it most times. The first half of the play is so determined to be a tornado of plot and character that, like a tornado, it’s occasionally tough to tell what it flying in which direction. Tarker tosses it all at us like a burst pipe spraying all over the room. When the second half adds some much-needed focus to the proceedings, it not only pays off what was set up, but steadies the proverbial ship without lowering the stakes.

Quite the contrary, the second half is where the play truly shines. The first ends with a sexual assault – the perpetrator brushing it off as if he’d just finished using the bathroom – and the second half has him possibly facing justice over this “youthful indiscretion”. It’s as if Act I had Tarker determined to overload on the comedy and supernatural elements, but for Act II to be considerably more grounded and dramatic.

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Alcinoe (Jordan María Don) finds the smitten Messenger (Joshua Waterstone) more than just persistent. Photo by Ben Yalom.

Throughout this modern mythological typhoon, Ben Yalom’s cast always manages to stay afloat. Yalom’s fellow foolsFURY artistic director Debórah Eliezer practically steals the show as Merope. Playing the wine-loving matriarch as “cool mom/cougar” in the first half, seeing her sullen at the start of the second half is moving and sad. I believe I last saw Jordan María Don as one of the four pastors in Crowded Fire’s staging of Church. Her over-the-top work in Act I is a bit much, but her work as lawyer-Alcinoe in Act II really allows her to shine, particularly her heartbreaking drunken closing argument.

Lorenz Gozalez, mercifully, doesn’t go overly campy in his role as “Jaime”, Merope’s hairdresser/seer, dispensing prophecies as he tufts her curls. Like Jordan Don, Joshua Waterstone’s “Messenger” is done better when more focused in the second act. And Ryan Hill finds the right amount of assholishness for Polybus. Rounding out the cast is Federico Edwards as prodigal son Oedipus, telling the world he’s cock of the walk when he’s really a lost little lamb (get it?).

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Oedipus (Federico Edwards) returns for a little “motherly love) from Merope (Debórah Eliezer). Photo by Ben Yalom.

But if there are any real stars in this production, it’s the design team. Noor Adabachi’s set – half seaside Greek cottage, half stacked pile of… fuzz – is as detailed as it is impressive. Boasting such secrets as hidden compartments and the ability to rotate, Adabachi’s shows how one can truly make a world when only using a single wall. Upon first entering the theatre, one hears Patrick Kaliski’s work through the sound of bleating sheep – it’s only gets better from there. I could spend all day going over the details of Barbara Bandy-Rosado’s costumes: the Greek-tile designs along the borders of everyone’s shirts; the use of Greco-Roman(-looking) coins as Merope’s belt – all of it calling back to the mythical source material in the most subtle of ways.

Ultimately, Dionysus was Such a Nice Man feels like the scenic route for a relatively short trip, but we’re blessed with compelling travel companions and a destination that’s worth the journey. Any work that skewers the bullshit “Nice Guy” trope will have a level of my respect to begin with.

I’d love to say we’ve evolved past the ancient Greeks’ poor idea of rape, but if that were true, I wouldn’t have had to use the I used up top.

GRADE:                                                                B-

Dionysus was such a Nice Man is scheduled to run until the 20th of October at the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco, CA
Be advised that this show addresses the topics of sexual assault, molestation, and incest.
The show runs 2 hours and 5 minutes with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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