Dionysus in Stony Mountain: A Review

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.

MTC Warehouse’s August: Osage County

I had the pleasure of taking in a performance of MTC Warehouse’ August: Osage County starring Canadian theatre icon Martha Henry. The three and a half hour epic was the most phenomenal play I’ve seen all year.

August: Osage County tells the story of the Winston family, lead by pill-popping matriarch Violet. Sick with cancer of the mouth, as well as the metaphorical illness of a venomous tongue, Violet (Martha Henry) meanders through her shadowy, cluttered home in a pill-popping haze. Her husband, Beverly (Frank Adamson), has hired Johnna, a Native American housekeeper enlisted to keep the house running, while enduring the racist verbal onslaught courtesy of Violet. But shortly after hiring Johnna, Beverly disappears. Scared, angry, and lonely, Violet calls in the rest of her family to aid in finding her husband. Trapped under one roof, the three Winston daughters and their various spouses and children come to head in a dizzy of sound, fury, and whiskey.

Besides the electrifying Henry, the play also features the phenomenal cast of local artists Frank Adamson, Sharon Bajer, Julia Arkos, Melanie Dean, Arne MacPherson, and Samantha Hill. The ensemble cast features not one weak link, and seeing these seasoned actors do live theatre battle is a deliciously vicious treat for the senses.

As August: Osage County has just received phenomenal reviews from Winnipeg Free Press and CBC, I’d run out and get your tickets fast. If the crowded Saturday matine that I attended was any indication, seating will be limited.

MTC’s production of August: Osage County runs until March 24 at The Tom Hendry Theatre Warehouse. Tickets can be purchased at MTC’s website or by phone at (204) 947-3741.

The Second Coming – Altar Boyz at PTE

Last night, I took in the opening performance of PTE’s Altar Boyz and let me tell you, it was a heavenly night full of toe-tapping pop songs, cute twenty-something crooners, and tongue-in-cheek bible thumping.

 This wasn’t my first foray into the sweetly-satired world of Altar Boyz; PTE’s production is a remount of Winnipeg Studio Theatre’s 2009 Fringe reincarnation of the off-Broadway hit. I was one of the lucky few who got to see one of those original performances, as Altar Boyz proved to be the best-selling show of the 2009 Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Score one for the bible and boy bands.

For those unfamiliar with Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s off-Broadway hit, Altar Boyz tells the story of a Christian boy band that is traveling the country on its Raise The Praise tour. Fronting the Altar Boyz is Matthew (Jeremy Walmsley), the cute, sensitive heart breaker who leads the group in their pop-infused holy set. Mark (Joseph Sevillo) is the sensitive one, with silky-smooth, Mariah-esque vocal stylings and a love of a good dance solo. Luke (Michael Lyons), the rapping bad boy, has just been released from a rehabilitation centre for “exhaustion”. Juan (Marc Devigne) is the Ricky Martin inspired Latin Lover, who is searching for his long-lost parents in between Meringue steps. And finally there’s Abraham (Simon Miron), the only Jewish member, who masterminds all of the group’s lyrics, while trying to keep his own faith amongst his Christian counterparts.

Together, the Altar Boyz have landed in Winnipeg in what is the last stop in their holy tour. Their mission is to cleanse the souls of the entire PTE audience, all in 90 minutes or less. But secrets, hidden desires, and doo-rags litter their paths to righteousness. The result is a hilarious, fun, smart, and infectious pop-musical of Godly proportions.

Backing the charismatic cast is a fabulous 6-piece band, as well as an epic concert-style set conceptualized by Sean Neville, Janelle Regalbutto, and Shane Stewart. The choreography by Winnipeg veterans Sofia Constantini and Brenda Gorlick is fun, funky, and pleasingly referential. Director Kayla Gordon, whose past credits include The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Hersteria, and Spring Awakening has once again delivered the Winnipeg audience with an exciting taste of Broadway, er off-Broadway. Get your tickets fast, folks. Chances are it’ll be a hit.

Altar Boyz runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange from February 23 – March 11. Tickets are between $25-$45 and can be purchased by phone (204) 925-5269 or at pte.mb.ca . All students with valid ID can take advantage of a $10 ticket for any unsold seat 30 minutes before show time.