Review: DION: A ROCK OPERA at Coal Mine Theatre

New musical invites you to walk the red carpet with the god of partying.

By: Feb. 11, 2024
Review: DION: A ROCK OPERA at Coal Mine Theatre

Don’t go to Coal Mine’s production of Ted Dykstra and Steven Mayoff’s DION: A ROCK OPERA expecting to hear Celine’s greatest hits, or Stéphane’s speeches on the carbon tax. in this retelling of Euripedes’ The Bacchae, the Dion in question is Dionysus, the non-binary Greek demigod of theatre, wine, and revelry.

After their mother Semele is “slut-shamed” to death, her accurate claim that their father was Zeus ignored by her sister Agave and nephew Pentheus, king of Thebes, Dion returns seeking revenge on the people who wronged them by exploiting the very desires they criticize so harshly. Compelling the city’s population into a frenzy of sex, alcohol, and self-expression, Dion waves his phallic thyrsus (a staff topped by a pinecone, here covered with disco-ball mirrors and silver glitter) high in reminding the humans what happens when you mess with the gods.

The tight, 70-minute DION is a visually compelling show which puts you right in the middle of the dangerous merriment, with terrific performances and some banger musical numbers. It only stumbles when, like one of its characters, it loses its head, trading its promising fluidity and timelessness to shackle itself to a single moment.

Director Peter Hinton-Davis stages things on a red runway flanked by two marble statues that resembles a Fashion Week catwalk (set by Scott Penner). The placement casts you as a juror, sitting on one side of the proceedings and observing your fellow audience members on the other. Using this runway to full advantage, Penner dresses the chorus in stylish black and white costumes directly out of couture graphic-printed street fashion, puffy jackets, fishnet mesh, and suits emblazoned with the watchword of the day, the classic bacchanal cry, “Evoe!” that forms the backbone of the opening number and remains a motif throughout. (Scholars of classical Greek may bristle at the pronunciation here, which sounds more like the cast is describing Extra Virgin Olive Oil than storming the steps of the Parthenon.)

During several scenes or confrontations, two main players stand at either end of this long strip, giving the scenes the feeling of a tennis match with two strong players. It’s compelling to swivel back and forth, but it does mean that, if you’re in the centre, you can’t simultaneously take in one character’s reaction and the other’s action. Lighting designer Bonnie Beecher makes the most of this strip of playing space, whether creating a “two suns” effect with mirrors that sends a shaft of light careening across it, or highlighting Pentheus and Dion in two cones of light resolving in brightly-hued rings on the floor, making them look like video game combatants selected by a heavenly player. Dion’s sinuous, belting acolytes wield colour-changing glass tubes like light sabers; truly, this a very neon Dion.

It’s all very fashionable, but in fashion, as Heidi Klum says, “one day you’re in; the next day, you’re out.” Dion’s actions create a massive upheaval in the kingdom, and through Jacob MacInnis, we get a enthralling lead figure who seems qualified to lead that kind of shake-up–and is equally comfortable in a streetwise hoodie or glistening golden gown. MacInnis has a winning confidence that radiates to fill the entire small space; it’s a tough task to play a demigod, but they capture both the very human disappointment and petulance and the godlike mastery and imperiousness that make the character such a fascinating figure. Even when there’s chaos surrounding them, they sometimes seem like the only person in the room.

Equally magnetic are the trio of named characters bewitched by Dion, his aunt Agave (Carly Street), her father Cadmus (Allan Louis), and his advisor, the blind seer Tiresias (SATE). SATE, wearing a crown of clothespins, leads one of the two real standout numbers; “The Great Unraveling” feels epic in both scope and vocals (kudos to the talented band for keeping things gamely bopping along). Street’s Agave walks like she’s not quite in control of her own movements, while retaining enough of her faculties to land a devastating wisecrack. Louis is (forgive me) hot as Hades in his role as the sower of dragon’s teeth who realizes it might be time to plant flowers instead, and his voice is rich and glorious.

Agave’s fraught relationship with Cadmus, whom she blames for loving her sister more than her, is a secondary plotline to the show; even if that plot is somewhat hastily introduced and resolved with plenty of room for development, the characters are well-defined enough that one can tell that the similarities in their personalities lie at the heart of their conflict.

The lone outsider to the Dionysian cult, main antagonist Pentheus (Allister MacDonald) is presented as an autocratic Trumpian figure who speaks crudely, scoffs at Dion’s preferred pronouns, talks about “alternative facts,” and tries to eviscerate his enemies by tweeting at them. Given this characterization, he’s the weak link in the chain, since this pushes the show toward a simple, binary political allegory that doesn’t map to the rest of the story. Instead, things work best when left a little mysterious, functioning as a rejection of those binaries and as a celebration of fluidity, theatre, illusion, exploration, and confusion; as Dion sings, the place “between the actor and the mask…between the costume and the soul.”

While the music and fashion clearly update the show to the present in its aesthetic, the 2000+ year-old themes of familial conflict and surrendering to forces behind our control still resonate through them; references to Twitter, on the other hand, already feel dated and limiting. MacDonald effectively froths at the mouth with Pentheus’ fury, and it’s fun to watch his complex reactions as he suits up in drag to try to infiltrate The Revelers. He doesn’t quite have the same handle on the musical material as his more precise co-stars, but one could interpret it as a representation of being out of touch with one’s own desires and emotions, and out of step with reality.

Dion sings in the show’s other most memorable number that we can only find meaning from moment to moment, rather than always trying to find an overarching connection within the stories of our lives. This makes sense in the context of the show; it’s made of a string of promising moments, each its own mini-commentary, which hang together predominantly because of the tried-and-true structure of Greek tragedy. The transient and ephemeral nature of these moments give DION: A ROCK OPERA the hazy, iridescent feeling of a soap bubble, beautiful and shining—but when you try to capture and a bubble in time, it’s much more likely to congeal and pop.

Photo of Kelsey Verzotti, Saccha Dennis, Jacob MacInnis, Max Borowski and Kaden Forsberg by Dahlia Katz