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BWW Review: DIONYSUS ON THE DOWN LOW at Outcast Theatre Collective

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The cast is sensational, T.R. Butler and Johnathan O’Brien give performances that will blow you away. This needs to be seen!

BWW Review: DIONYSUS ON THE DOWN LOW at Outcast Theatre Collective

"When a person speaks a truth you become powerful!" -David Okello

"In life, you have people on the top and people on the bottom but no one is powerless."

-David Okello

When playwright Michael Proft was introduced to the back story behind this gripping tell-all piece, he learned of a documentary entitled "Worst Places in the World to be Gay." It was through this documentary and subsequent other documentaries that he learned about what it was like to live in the country of Uganda as a member of the LGBTQ Community. Impacted by the stories he heard and through the documentaries he watched, and rightfully so, he put to paper what was to become Dionysus on the Down Low.

Set in what one would assume would be New York City, at the show's top we meet Matthew Teitman a Jewish Political Activist who is seen accepting an award for his achievement in such a field. No sooner did the lights come up did they go down again to assume a backward progression in time. This technique is used to let the audience know that we are now moving to the events leading up to the acceptance of the award. Soon we meet Matthew's mother and learn that she can be a little on the suffocating side. Always coming over without knocking and almost wishing to be attached to the hip of Matthew. In a sense, we get the feeling that this is where Matthew's uptight nature stems from. Everything has to be in its place, there is never a moment where a coaster is not used, and things have to be planned out to the smallest detail.

Matthew brings David Okello a Ugandan Leader in LGBTQ Activism over to the states as a way of seeking Asylum from his homeland. Along the way, Matthew teaches David how to use a Cell-Phone, dress Business Casually, and Apply for jobs. We learn that Matthew has an admiration for David from a political standpoint as he always watches a specific speech delivered by Okello anytime he has a bad day at work. Okello is brash, loud, and in your face, everything expected from someone who has dealt with political persecution of sorts and is finally able to know freedom or a sense thereof. What is intriguing here is that underneath all of the pizzaz is the depth of David's heart. He truly wants to help his people and the people of the world understand the very importance of the struggle. Actuated much like the story of Dionysus and Apollo in Greek Mythology, Dionysus was born of different cloth and spent most of his life feeling like an outsider looking in.

Pretty soon we come to learn of Matthew's admiration of not just a political nature but one of romantic intentions as well. Brought back into the spectrum by David living under Matthew's roof, the two men recall a certain time in Amsterdam. Matthew makes it very clear that he is not interested in a relationship. However, as most things do, over time the sparks re-kindled and they finally come to terms with where they are romantically and put a label on it. One thing this show does not shy away from is the intimacy shared between the two men. They passionately share kisses and show their affection for each other, each time they get a "private moment." Their love is passionate, unbridled, but at the same time you wonder is there something hiding under the surface of the pristine veil?

We soon meet Naome a friend of Okello's from Uganda who left her children in her home country to seek freedom in America and assume her life as a lesbian. We learn of her past, and her struggles with love, and the need for her to bring her children to America. Her ache and her plight are intensified in Act 2 when some medical issues are brought to light. We feel for her and her plight to be the woman she always wanted to be. Her friendship with David and Matthew is much like the character arch in Will & Grace. They go to clubs together and have weekly meetups and dinners, and she is always supportive at every event. She sparks a friendship with Matthew's mother that is just a joy to watch.

Pretty soon drama comes to a head when David starts to feel his place in America is not right for the wear. He thinks of his homeland and wishes to return. At the same time, he has built a home living with Matthew. We see this internal struggle and feel for him in his plight. Not to give too much away, but all of the drama comes to a boiling point with an ending that has to be seen, for it will stay with you long after the lights go down and you assume your car ride home, for it is still with me today.

From top to bottom the acting here is spot on. T.R. Butler is a stand-out of dynamic proportions as David Okello. To the accent, the nuances, and even the clothes; you forget you are watching an actor play a character. An acting masterclass that needs to witnessed, for his testimony is earth-shaking and one I could watch again and again. Johnathan O'Brien is perfect as Matthew Teitman. He's the perfect son living at the hands of an over-protective mother, but at the same time, he longs for that perfect life with the one he loves. He's had a rough go of it to the point of shutting out love entirely, however, when he lets his guard down and the right one in it's truly magical. Johnathan's delivery is spot on, we get the arc behind his neurotic tendencies and his anxious behavior is well portrayed. Both of these actors bring outstanding performances that will tug at your heartstrings, make you laugh, even make you cry, and this is the finest performance from two performers I have seen for some time. Their dynamic is that damn good. It was like being a fly on the wall of an episode of Queer as Folk and every minute made you want to see more.

Gloria de-Luna as Ina Teitman gives a wonderful performance as the overprotective mother. We sense her need to make sure her son is always on the right path, but we sense her sincere urgency to make sure the relationship with her son never disappears no matter where his life takes him. Linda Edmundo as Naome Ssempa is a joy to watch in every moment. She is vibrant and fashionable forward and I always wanted to see what she was going to wear next. We sense Naome's plight to make a better life for herself in America. Though there are a few times where the ladies are talking and it's hard to hear what they are saying. Accents are a wonderful addition but annunciation and turning a little more out to the audience can help us understand a little better about the moment being said.

Technically sound Dionysus on the Down Low delivers. There were a couple of issues with music and sound effects. In essence that I feel like the music could be a little louder at times during scene changes and such. It helps drive the emotion leading into the next scene. The juxtaposition between the level of the music volume versus the sound effects of the ringtones on the phone was slightly troublesome but soon overlooked. The set design by Clareann Despain is beautifully captured. We get the essence of a New York loft with modern furniture and decor. The use of the screen worked well as the windows, and later a view into the bedroom. I will say though that the transitions between night and day seemed abrupt, I wonder if the dissolve could move a little slower. To the unseen eye, it might not be that apparent, it was almost like watching a cut-through movie that just panned from one scene to the next. All in all technically speaking Clareann and crew have done a great job bringing the world of the play to life, and you truly feel a part of the action. There is one moment at the very end that is worth the price of admission and will completely blow you away. Kudos to all involved!

Michael Proft's script is tightly wound and full of heart. He does a great job interweaving the plot amidst the current events of the time period. The script speaks of 9/11 and the Obama Presidency and alludes to other Presidents throughout the years. The addition of pop-culture references is wonderful adding Will & Grace and Youtube. Many hours of research went into this work and it is displayed in the expertly keen dialogue and smooth cadence that you forget you are watching a play. It's like real life is unfolding right before your eyes and a true testament to Proft's genius. Clareann's smooth direction leaves not a stone unturned. Each moment to moment is so grounded and you feel like these are people you've known your whole life. The dynamic between Michael and David is captivating to watch. Expertly directed and paced this one is a knockout!

The fine folks at Outcast Theatre Collective have done outstanding work here. At the helm is Dr. Clareann Despain. One thing the Collective has done is implemented a CAP program. Spearheaded by Despain, anyone who is unable to see a production due to financial burden, the CAP program allows them to see the show at little to no cost. This is a great testament to the work in which this Collective provides. They would rather Change the Narrative, Spark a Conversation than have a patron miss a chance to see the live work. How will they fulfill this mission without a person in the seat? This is a great addition to the Tampa Theatre scene and something that as a Collective Body a welcomed chance to spread the truth and once again capture the true meaning behind live theatre.

Dionysus on the Down Low is not a normal story, but at the same time, the story is very real. It takes a hard-hitting look at the issues involved with the persecution of an outsider in a world they can't seem to fit into. Socially-charged issues like LGBTQ persecution, the Holocaust, Rape, and Drug Use are very apparent and very real not only in this play but in real life as well. Stories like this change the narrative, change the conversation and bring to light issues that we ALL need to take time to learn about. So often we get set in a routine and forget about the stories that came before us that lead us to where we are today. It's those stories and more that not only define a generation but define who we are to become as a world. During a talkback after the show, an audience member asked, "In relation to where Michael was when the show ended, where would he be today?" I think that is the one question we can all ask ourselves, and as a takeaway, "Without those who came before us, where would we be today?" A Luta Continua...

Tickets for Dionysus on the Down Low can be purchased by visiting outcasttheatre.org. Dionysus on the Down Low continues onstage at Stageworks Theatre through Sunday, July 25, 2021. Due to the recent Delta-Variance mask will be required while in the theater, though the actors onstage will not be masked.

Photo Credit: Outcast Theatre Collective


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