Dallas — Kudos to GiANT Entertainment for attempting to transform the sometimes-stuffy AT&T Performing Arts Center into a setting for carnivalesque revelry. As their contribution to The Elevator Project, the folx at GiANT produced City Dionysia, a heady mix of theater, music, Las Vegas-esque choreography, street performance, drag art, and burlesque that had a short, one-weekend run.
The evening included at least three distinct phases, each with various amounts of audience participation. There was a preshow consisting of a fire dancer and promenading entertainers that include actors walking on stilts. The preshow then transitioned into a sing-along that culminated in a Roman gladiatorial game. The night concluded with a staged adaptation of The Bacchae by Euripides. Ryan Matthieu Smith directed City Dionysia with help from assistant director John Gentry Lumpkin and preshow director Jonah Gutierrez. Smith chatted with TheaterJones last week about why he choose to adapt the Greek tragedy. Altogether, the event ran right at two hours.
Entering from beside the Winspear Opera House, the audience made its way across the street-level plaza to be greeted by stilt-walking neo-primitives playing squealing rock chords on their electric guitars. One wore a headdress that looked like it came straight from Cher’s closet. There were a couple of vendors where you could buy tee shirts or a cup of wine. Nymphs clad in pastel rainbow chiffon gowns handed out packages of condoms as if to tease that it was going to be one of those kinds of nights. The general aesthetic was a mash-up of post-apocalyptic and neo-punk chic.
As you descended the stairs to the sunken garden of Strauss Square, the acrid smoke and aroma of burning oil from a circle of torches hit your nose. The flames dancing in the breeze helped to hold the chill in the air at bay. Adding to the carnival atmosphere was a fire dancer who moved to the moody polyrhythmic neo-folk darkwave sounds of bands like Daemonia Nymphe, Trobar de Morte, Hedningarna, and Värttinä.
Members of the ensemble, which consisted of about 10 actors, improvised interactions throughout the staging area, engaging in unscripted mock brawls or flirtations. Afterwards, they passed out maracas and hand drums so the audience could join in on a somewhat anemic rendition of the Queen anthem “We Will Rock You” that petered out at the end. Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” followed.
After a stylized Roman gladiatorial battle, the performers presented The Bacchae. With themes of family, identity and disguise, religious practice and political dissent, and exile and immigration, Euripides’ tragedy is always ripe for a contemporary revisioning.
While there were some worthy moments scattered throughout the evening, overall the event disappointed. Actors appeared to be only half-heartedly committed to their characters. Some of the writing was heavy-handed.
With traffic from Woodall Rodgers and the busy flightpath of Love Field, the producers should have been better able to anticipate the sheer amount of environmental noise and worked harder to mitigate it. Additionally, the night would have come across as more focused and polished if a consistent mic and amp strategy would’ve been used. As it was, some actors were mic’ed while others were not. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason for who got to use a wireless mic as opposed to a wired one attached to a mic stand. The volume of all mic’ed actors was too loud. Their voices blared across the space when they weren’t being drowned out by screeching feedback or background noise. Conversely, it was near impossible to hear unmic’ed actors. All this to say, the production would’ve benefitted from several more tech rehearsals.
One of the things this production did well was mash-up rock songs with the themes from classical Greece in hopes of levelling a critique against the current political climate. Smith drew from “The Cult of Dionysius” by The Orion Experience, Dead Can Dance’s “Song of the Stars,” Rihanna’s “S&M (Come On),” and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” as well as from Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech and confessional writer Mary MacLane’s quasi-mantra “When my happiness is given me / life will be / a nameless thing.”
These extra-textual sources added to the play’s relevancy and seems to have increased the evening’s entertainment value, if the raving audience members this reviewer overhead afterwards are to be believed.