Full A-Team Review: Dionysus Seduces an Audience

by A Team Reviewer JD Carrera

Photo Courtesy of The Rude Mechanicals

The Rude Mechanicals’ Dionysus in 69 is a must see for anyone wanting to be challenged, lose their inhibitions, or take a step back to an important moment in theatre history. Led by a team of highly skilled performers the audience finds themselves to be more than just spectators. They are fully immersed in a world of ritual and sensuality where things are never as one would expect. (Note: Take the adult content clause seriously on this one).

Here’s a little background. In 1968, The Performance Group, under the direction of Richard Schechner, changed the way we viewed modern theatre in America with their first performance, Dionysus in 69. The idea? No stage. No fourth wall. No boundaries. The actors need not even deny that they are actors. At times their real names are used. And the audience? They too are part of the performance, whether they realize it at first, or not.

I can remember, years ago, sitting in a Theatre History class discussing Schechner’s “Environmental Theatre”. We talked about reactions from the audience, their participation, and the reactions of the community, but it was all just talk. We could discuss it until we were blue in the face, but it would be just that—a heady, intellectual discussion. We would never truly “get” what the audience “got” in those performances, and, to be honest, I was skeptical walking into this weekend’s performance.

The Rude Mechs, however, “got” it and they share it with you. From the moment you are let in, it becomes obvious that you should expect the unexpected. You will find yourself in a theatre with no formal seating. There are no chairs and no stage. Find a spot on the floor or a platform and make yourself comfortable, but feel free to move around and go to the restroom if you wish. There are no bad seats. Each location will offer a very different experience. I sat perched on an upper platform and watched as the world unfolded beneath me, but do not think sitting on a platform will exclude you from the participation; the actors will seek you out. Everyone will participate and affect the performance, whether you choose to dance with an actor, clap to the beat, or just sit still and watch as the controlled chaos begins around you. You are affecting the performance by merely being in the room.

There is even a point where one audience member has the ability to end the performance, early. It nearly happened the night I attended. (I will go into no further detail on that, as I do not wish for an audience member to enter with the agenda of ending the performance. You can ask a cast member after the show what I am referencing.) I am thankful the performance continued. The production had many more fascinating revelations ahead. The audience is almost as entertaining as the cast itself. Members of the audience are sucked into the world of the performers, casting aside who they were when they entered.

This is not to gloss over the skilled performers involved in this production. The original actors played themselves playing the roles of Euripides’ The Bacchae. The Rude Mechs add another layer to this. They play themselves playing the cast member from the original production playing the role in The Bacchae. If this sounds convoluted or confusing, it’s made to appear easy and never complicated. The audience comes to accept it as they accept their own place in the story.

Josh Meyer, as Petheus/Bill Shephard, brings an engaging performance. You never doubt whether he is in the moment of the play. From his frantic attempts to control the disgruntled mutterings of the townspeople to his own discovery of ecstasy, he is fully reacting to everything around him, so that his character is bent and twisted like a reed in response to the chaotic storm brought on by Dionysus. The chorus members too, with the freedom to improvise and react to everything around them, including the audience, brought a sense of the unexpected which led to many hilarious moments including Ms Doss’, “That Pentheus is a lucky Duck,” in reaction to the unexpected actions of an audience member.

Despite this sense of freedom, they work together as a single unit, also bringing a sense of place to the production and creating beautiful imagery throughout. When asked about this balance after the show, Schechner stated that portions of the show are “scored,” as in a musical score. Specific actions and words are assigned and choreographed like a traditional play. Other portions are a “game.” The actors must use their skills and employ “strategies to achieve a goal” or outcome in the story. The two techniques meld together beautifully, but, because of this “game,” the performance is forever changing. The show seen one night may be very different the next.

Throughout the chaos and feeling of the unexpected was one constant that never changed—Dionysus/William Finley, played by Thomas Graves. His character never questioned who he was or his influence over everyone around him. Mr. Graves’ confidence and skill brought to life the charismatic character of Dionysus. You root for him even as he prepares to do a horrible thing to the poor, tormented Pentheus. The control of his movement and voice were so well balanced, one is never sure what lines are scripted and which are improvised. The entire cast has a mastery of listening and reacting to whatever is thrown at them.

The Rude Mechanicals should be commended for bringing these important moments in theatre history to the present, where their power can be felt in a new way under different circumstances. Much like the original, you will walk away from this performance affected in some way. There are moments that are controversial for many. There are moments that may cause you to feel uncomfortable. You may even walk away unsure about what you have seen, or how you feel about it, but that’s largely the point. Schechner was a firm believer in blurring the lines between theatre and ritual, not to mention audience and performer. Co-Directors Darlington and Sides did a fantastic job of doing just that. Enter the space with an open mind and a willingness to be affected. Whether you love it or hate it… Whether you feel inspired or appalled, you will be thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of it and will have a new respect for the level of commitment and dedication held by these theatre professionals.

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About nowplayingaustin

The Austin Creative Alliance is a nonprofit performing arts service organization working to cultivate an environment where the performing arts can grow and flourish. We serve over 130 arts organizations with marketing, ticketing, audience development services; AEA paymaster, information & referral services — plus access to affordable health, liability, and event insurance. We also provide online professional development seminars, fiscal sponsorship services for emerging arts groups, host annual unified general auditions, annual theatre industry awards, and consistently advocate for the many benefits the arts bring to our quality of life.

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