Religion, morality, and the corruption of help thematically haunted the 2 hours plus traffic of the Rachel Browne stage last week. The stoic apparitions, brought to life by Theatre Projects Manitoba in their season-ending play Dionysus in Stony Mountain, felt both literally and figuratively possessed by the ghost of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German moral philosopher obsessed with will.
The first act, which originally premiered as a Winnipeg Fringe Festival production in 2009, features what is essentially a one-man monologue by Stony Mountain inmate James (Ross McMillan). Weeks away from parole eligibility, James has chosen to go cold turkey on his Lithium, causing him to manically memorize and recite long Nietzsche passages, much to the dismay of his therapist Dr. Heidi Prober (Sarah Constible).
Dr. Prober, a Jewish therapist that shows particularity towards Ross and his considerable intellect, worries for his mental health and, perhaps more pressingly, the flawed nature of the Canadian correctional system. But much of Prober’s concerns in the first act play considerable backdrop to James’s troublingly giddy ramblings. It is within this first act that we may bear witness to McMillan’s extensive talents, mostly grounding the dizzyingly troubled James in steady, firm roots of sincerity and powerlessness against a corrupt, flawed system. Constible’s presence is felt, though she plays mostly scenery to the electric presence of McMillan.
This first act is too dense for my taste. I felt instantly transported back to a post-secondary philosophy lecture as this is essentially what the first act is: a lecture. McMillan does strong work in humanizing Nietzsche’s verbatim script of will and religion, but ultimately his off-the-rails musings felt too much like dictated pages of a first year Philosophy textbook.
The second act pulls more focus towards Prober, as her character has moved on from her job as a psychiatrist and has found troubling new practices of her own. Visited by her upper-crust Uncle Eric (McMillan again), Prober has lost all faith in the correctional system and has practically become a recluse, as she refurbishes her shabby new home.
This second act is a welcome addition to the original piece, and it does better work in providing realistic, interesting dialogue than the Philosophy 101-centric first act. Constible’s character has a much greater presence here, and her character’s personal struggles against her philosophically fraught work resonated deeply.
McMillan is once again a strong force as Uncle Eric, bringing a few much needed chuckles and a good deal of ethos to what would otherwise be a very one-note play. His work in both characters is sincere and detailed, making each characterization different enough to be believable and dynamic.
Although Dionysus in Stony Mountain as a total package reads as crowded and emulsified, its fragmented pieces are increasingly thoughtful and important work. Although it feels as both acts are not totally cohesive, there are strong and layered questions posed and the actors do exciting, interesting efforts in posing them.
For more information on Theatre Projects Manitoba, click here.