Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Nothing but Thunder

Last night, I saw Duncan Pflaster's new play Nothing but Thunder, which is currently showing at Theater for the New City as a part of the Dream Up Festival.

Much like The Frogs by Aristophanes, the play depicts a descent into the underworld by the Greek god Dionysus. Like in The Frogs, the god is accompanied by his slave, Xanthias, and in fact some of the dialogue is taken word-for-word from Aristophanes (though translated into English, of course).

In his biography in the program, Pflaster states that the piece is a tribute to playwright Charles Ludlam, whose Ridiculous Theatrical Company used many of the same methods, blending high and low culture, and frequently stealing whole scenes from dead writers and inserting them into new plays to the bemusement of audience members who recognized the gag.

What I found most interesting about Nothing but Thunder is that in spite of having all of the materials for a farce like the Frogs, Pflaster tends to avoid the ridiculous at times, and creates moments of genuine pathos amidst a sea of absurdity. (This is something Ludlam tended to do as well.) Spencer Gonzalez, who plays Dionysus, has an emotional journey as he undertakes his literal journey down to the underworld and back.

Matt Biagini, who plays Xanthias, tends to keep the tone of the show light and comic, but he, too, has moments of emotional insight. As he oils up his master and some maenads for a steamy orgy, we think we're in for one sort of play, but when Dionysus must get aid from the shepherd Prosymnus (played by Kenny Wade Marshall), we appear to be in very different territory. This mirrors the situation of Dionysus himself, who doesn't know how to act when people don't immediately fall down and worship him.

There are few surviving texts that give a complete, flushed-out story of Prosymnus, so Pflaster provides some details of his own, giving him a dear sister named Adelpha, played by Katrina Dykstra. We first see Adelpha carrying a cute stuffed sheep named Tasso, a clear reference to the Italian poet who wrote what many people consider to be the definitive pastoral drama about shepherds. As you can see, the play rarely passes up an opportunity to make a clever literary reference.

After a rather... interesting bargain with Prosymnus... Dionysus gets to the underworld, and specifically to Tartarus, a land of eternal torment and suffering. There he meets Sisyphus (played by Eric Hedlund) eternally pushing a rock up a hill. He also runs into his own dead ex-wife, Ariadne. Olivia Kinter, who plays Ariadne, delivers one of the more nuanced performances in the show, in spite of the relatively small size of her role. Dionysus, it turns out, went to the underworld not to rescue his ex, but his mother Semele, played by Alyssa Simon.

Aliza Shane directed the production, which--be warned--contains no small amount of nudity. For this reason, everyone entering the theatre must turn off their cell phones and place them in special pouches provided by Yondr. The pouches ensure that the phones stay locked up and unable to take photographs until the audience leaves the theatre and has their pouches unlocked by the staff. Sadly, this is what we have to do when certain irresponsible people continue to take photos during plays.

If you do want to be a horrible person and take a nude photograph of an un-consenting individual, though, I recommend you not try to photograph any Greek gods. If you do, pushing rocks for eternity might be the least of your problems.