BWW Review: DIONYSUS IN AMERICA Rages Against the War Machine at the Vortex Theatre
The Butterfly Bar at The Vortex theatre buzzes with anticipation. A TSA agent quietly moves through the space. Suddenly women in white gowns appear, focusing their attention on a figure now standing on the bar. This figure is Dionysus. He regales the audience with the circumstances of his birth, unrecognized divinity, liberation, and his mother's deportation to Iraq. The bartender serves patrons as if Dionysus's verbose diatribe is nothing but a hushed conversation.
And this is how DIONYSUS IN AMERICA-Jenny Pacinowski's feminist call to arms-begins. Playwright Pacinowski sets her interpretation of Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae, in America and the Iraq war. Think Francis Ford Coppola's anti-war masterpiece Apocalypse Now which viewed Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel Heart of Darkness through the lens of the Vietnam War. Pacinowski uses The Bacchae as a vehicle to drive her own experiences as a combat medic, civilian, and woman, home to the audience. Though a first time playwright, Pacinowski armors her characters' monologues to confidently lay bare trauma, feminine defiance, and her blistering criticism of the American military.
To the Greeks, Dionysus was the god of the wine, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and appropriately, theatre. To the Romans, he was Bacchus or Eleutherios ("the liberator"). Pacinowski leans into this latter characteristic for Dionysus, who seduces female followers from America to join him in Iraq. His offer of freedom from the oppression they face in America is tantalizing, but he's got a hidden agenda. He needs help to finally accomplish his goals of divine recognition and maternal vengeance. Confrontation then looms as American General Pentheus makes plans to dismantle Dionysus's reign and haul the frenzied women back to where they belong.
DIONYSUS IN AMERICA upholds The Vortex's mission of "urgent, unashamed art that dares to dream the world in which we want to live". The production feels as liberated as Dionysus's followers; subverting the restraints of traditional theatre with a nonlinear plot and perspicuous performances. Actor Diana Guizado cleverly interprets her Dionysus as a contradiction: a drop-crotch frat bro who hides his true intentions from the women he gathered, yet devoutly honors his role as their liberator. Guizado's movement is her greatest weapon as she commands her role with intentionally masculine gestures to set Dionysus apart from the women.
Actor Bob Jones has the unenviable job of making misogynistic General Pentheus bearable. It's safe to say he succeeds and then some. Jones steals the show using foul- mouthed humor and effortless delivery of his lines. Pentheus' casual cruelty makes his Jones' stage presence tough to ignore.
The rest of the cast impressively commits to their roles as women adjusting to deliverance in a strange land. They aren't immune to the difficulties of their new life. Actor Christina T. Romero's plays Dionysus' aunt Agave. Her knee-buckling display of grief in a final scene is worth the price of a ticket. It's a rapturous, stop in your tracks moment that can't go unmentioned.
Though some lines of dialogue noticeably repeat and monologues start to feel recycled by the end of the one hour and fifteen-minute runtime, DIONYSUS IN AMERICA drives its point home. There's certainly no mistaking what's being conveyed or who's being criticized. The creative team could have steered it toward palatable subtlety, but they bravely chose unabashed candor. Jenny Pacinowski's first play may not be everyone's cup of tea, but art with the supreme clarity and uncompromising message of DIONYSUS IN AMERICA deserves respect and an audience.
Production stills courtesy of Jose Lozano of Magic Spoon Productions
October 11 - October 20, 2019
Vortex Repertory Theatre
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722 Tickets: $35-$15
$35 Priority Seating
$25 General Admission
Advanced Reservations Recommended. Limited seating.www.vortexrep.org or 512-478-5282