Saturday, July 15, 2023

"Hurricane Diane" by Rough Magic Performance Company at the Center for Performing Arts

This morning when I went for a run, the sun was an unnatural bright pink, a color I'd never seen from the sun before, due to smoke from Canadian wildfires. While it was a stunning display, it was also disturbing. This poor air quality from far away fires happens occasionally in the border state of Minnesota, but it seems to be happening much more often this year, and in places much farther away. Arizona is currently experiencing record heat, and devastating natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes seem to be increasing every year. In playwright Madeleine George's play Hurrican Diane (which premiered in 2017 and played Off-Broadway in 2019), the god of wine, vegetation, and fertility, known as Dionysus or Bacchus, witnesses this growing crisis and steps in to attempt to remedy it. How does he do so? By posing as a lesbian landscaper and seducing four suburban New Jersey women to become acolytes. It's a very funny play, well executed by the all-star cast and creative team at Rough Magic Performance Company, but that doesn't make its lesson any less dire. In fact, the audience being seduced by the laughter and ridiculous situations makes the stark reality that human choices and actions are making the planet more and more unlivable for humans even more shocking. Don't miss this beautifully done regional premiere of the timely, hilarious, and terrifying play Hurricane Diane (continuing at Center for Performing Arts through July 30).

Taj Ruler as the god Dionysus
(photo by Lindsay Marcy)
The play opens with Dionysus (played by the brilliantly funny Taj Ruler) appearing in all her godly glory and explaining to the audience who she is, what she's been up to since leaving Olympus, and why she's reentering the world. Between scenes she continues to speak to us, recounting her successes and lamenting her failures in her goal to make these four women her acolytes so that she can start a cult that will save the world. She starts with the prim and proper Carol (Alayne Hopkins), who's obsessed with the neat and pretty pictures in HGTV magazine and wants a yard that the neighbors will approve of. Needless to say she's a tough sell for Dionysus, known as Diane in human form, and her ideas of ripping out the yard and replacing it with permaculture. She has a much easier time with Renee (Dana Lee Thompson), HGTV magazine editor who once dated a woman (as she constantly reminds her friends) and is intrigued by the idea. Beth (Catherine Johnson Justice), whose husband recently left her, also quickly falls under Diane's spell. Stereotypical New Jersey housewife Pam (George Keller), who has a disaster suite in her basement in which the neighborhood sheltered during Hurricane Sandy, is also a tough nut to crack, leading Diane to use more extreme techniques. Finally, with the three women literally worshipping at her feet, only Carol is left, upon which hangs the fate of the world.

Dionysus (Taj Ruler) and her acolytes
(Dana Lee Thompson, Catherine Johnson Justice,
and George Keller, photo by Lindsay Marcy)
The 95-minute play flies by in a series of scenes in one or another of the neighbors' kitchens, Diane with each woman alone, or all the women together having coffee, interspersed with Diane's monologues. Noël Raymond and Heidi Batz Rogers co-direct the piece (the latter also designed the set and costumes), and achieve the perfect balance between humor and seriousness, reality and fantasy. The play really couldn't be cast any better, with each actor fully embodying their very different characters.  Costumes help this character definition, with Carol in neat slim pants (think Laura Petrie), Beth in exercise gear, Pam in a blue leopard print top and leather pants and too much jewelry, and Renee in chic flowy tunic and pants. They each also have a signature dishtowel, a clever detail that helps us know in whose kitchen we are. 

Dionysus/Diane (Taj Ruler) and Carol (Alayne Hopkins)
in her kitchen (photo by Lindsay Marcy)
In the CFPA black box space, a rectangular platform stage has been set up, with the frame of a window and a door against a black curtain, and a modern kitchen island with coffee cups and wine glasses. For her monologues, Dionysus jumps off the stage (sometimes literally) to walk around it and speak directly to the audience in a friendly and informal way. When a storm rolls in, we feal it palpably thanks to the lighting and sound design (by Heidi Eckwell and Jaime Lupercio, respectively).

If there's a funny way to talk about the very serious crisis that is climate change, this is it. The play also provides commentary on the sometimes culty group think of neighborhoods, and conforming to ideals rather than doing what's right or what you want. It's been two years since the last Rough Magic live production (the also brilliant Norma Jeane of Troy performed at the Mill City Farmer's Market in the summer of 2021), and that's way too long to wait for this "professional theater company focused on supporting women artists, audiences, and stories." Who knows when their next show will be, so don't miss this one!