"Dinner With Dionysus": Magic & Mayhem

Telluride Theatre‘s must-see (to believe)”Dinner with Dionysus” takes place Friday, December 15 –Saturday, December 23, 7 p.m., with no show on Wednesday, December 20. After-show talk-backs are Monday, December 18 and Friday, December 22. ” All at the Palm Arts Complex’s “The Bob.” 

New this time around: The VIP Experience – “Dining with Dionysus,” featuring a seat at a 10-person table, with catered food, and wine thanks to Ashley Story of Telluride Sleighs & Wagons. It is a whole new way to experience the sexy show. 

Tickets are $20 general admission; $75 per person  for the VIP experience. Tickets are available here. 

“Party like its 1237 BC.” And promise, if you ride that leopard, you won’t get torn up.

The goal is not to deliver moral telegrams. It is about giving enduring form to her insights about the human condition, warts and all. So how do you, how does Sasha Sullivan‘s company, Telluride Theatre, respond to today’s culture of extreme advocacy, lies, predation, confrontation, judgment and verdict?

She heads for fertile (writ large) territory.

She heads for dinner with the god of reversals: Dionysus.

“Dinner with Dionysus,” the review:

Sasha’s naughty-but-nice remix of “Dinner With Dionysus” – the first draft went up at the Ah Haa School in 2013 – is a tour de force of social commentary, particularly with regards to the defining American forces that took shape back in the (alleged) halcyon days of the 1950s: money and upward mobility; (white, heterosexual) male dominance; Christian virtue, values that still prevail, but are now kicking and screaming for survival in the face of daily challenges. Metaphorically speaking, that tired ethos needs be torn limb from limb – a fact of life that takes graphic form in the production that mocks the status quo with merriment, mayhem, movement and magic.

Telluride Theatre’s “Dionysus” is a sly, seductive story about seduction that takes place at a dinner party thrown by the god of wine, etc. He hopes, by recruiting new followers, he can resurrect his cult. (Like”Peter Pan’s” Tinker Bell, Dionysus needs applause and adulation to thrive, even survive.)

Beautiful maenadsPam Sante, Molly Wickwire-Sante, Melissa Harris, and Erika Curry-Elrod – serve as waiters (perhaps better, ladies-in-waiting, see more on them below); libation, liberation and ritual madness ensues.

“Dinner with Dionysus” is now up through Saturday, December 23, at the “The Bob,” the Palm’s former Black Box Theatre, renamed in honor of “Glider Bob” Saunders, a longtime local and celebrity, who, since the early 1990s, flew high in the air – and thrilled equally on Telluride stages.

In “Dionysus,” Sasha & Co. once again pounds sacred cows into hamburger in a crazy-quilt evening starring, as in the original, Sasha’s husband, Colin Sullivan, at his very best doing his worst playing the most complex and multifaceted all the Greek gods, alternately a maniacal, destructive figure and an innocent.

Colin foments the storm on stage.

He also legislates the few moments of calm.

As the god of sensuality and experience, Colin, a supernatural talent, throws himself body and soul into savagery in order to contact and possess the supernatural. Also as the mischievous, mysterious god of wine, he constantly asks “Why not?”

The center of gravity of the evening and in full command of its trajectory, Colin plays the complex part as a master puppeteer pulling all strings for his own amusement (and survival). Dancing, singing, seducing, loving, he is riveting. From the get-go, Colin had the audience, like his maenads, in the palm of his hand.

All credit to everyone in the ensemble cast too, also agile of tongue, limb and voice. On opening night, they too brought their winning game, never holding back, never pulling any punches.

Danielle Jenkins is the hot, rebellious socialite-blogger Clarissa.

Suzanne Cheavens, a chameleon on stage, eschews comedy to play the unsuspecting hostess with the mostest, George’s loving wife Mary. (Later in the play, for a brief interlude when Suzanne and Ashley shared the stage, it was a moment of Lip Sync zen.)

Sue Knechtel plays Cecelia, the unhappy wife (of Ashley’s William).True to form, however, she easily grabs the spotlight when she goes rogue for Dionysus.

Ashley Boling is William – and Zeus, arguably the original sexual predator and father of Dionysus (through rape, natch). Thankfully the new haircut does not diminish his powers.

David Macmillan is Mary’s husband George, his talent – and irreverence – once again on parade in a case (we are guessing) of art imitating life.

Anna Robinson is Evelyn, a Texas lady-who-lunches. Can we ever get enough of that bell of a  voice?

Alan Bradley is Charles. He is a relative newcomer to Telluride Theatre’s stage, but clearly an uninhibited musical and acting talent. More please.

The ubiquitous, irrepressible Cat Lee Covert is Frederick’s unfaithful wife Abigail. She is Semele, Dionysus’ ill-fated mom – and, because enough is never enough for this engine, Cat is also the production’s associate choreographer. The girl can’t help it.

Sam Burgess is Frederick – and more, everyone is “more” – always a strong, confident, multi-talented presence who seems to quietly, effortlessly exhale his performance.

Altogether, they seem to be having a ball – despite the fact (or because of it?) the energy Sasha and choreographers Lyndia Peralta and Covert asked them to put out is about equal to two Imogene Pass runs.

Magic is powerful stuff.

“Dionysus,” rolling out the story & praise to the crew:

To recap the action in “Dinner with Dionysus,” a collaboration among Sasha and her talented cast and crew, think Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on acid. (Remember? In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” fairies controlled and manipulated an unsuspecting group of young Athenian lovers in a forest.)

“Dionysus” opens with a dinner party, featuring a cast of characters who got lost on the way to the “Great Gatsby”: a privileged, powerful, spoiled – and basically unhappy group.

The maenads are the servers at the gathering; their entrance into the action, a John Cage moment.

When Dionysus takes charge of the evening, wild, primitive, half-animal passions take over and all hell breaks loose.

It’s heavenly.

“Dinner with Dionysus” does talk – though dialog is there largely to provide a roadmap. (There is, however, one stand-out moment that is all about words: a rap contest between Dionysus and Jesus, Colin and Pam respectively, raising holy hell.

It sings too. The wonderful sounds are originals from Telluride Theatre’s regular composer-musical director Ethan Hale.

But it is dance that drives the action in the play, which means the production depended on the creativity of choreographers Lyndia and Cat under Sasha’s strict eye. Whenever dance erupted, all eyes were on the Waiters-maenads, (Erika, Pam, Molly, Melissa; Cat and Danielle, too when they joined in.) The fluid sensuality of their dance was, as it was meant to be,  just enchanting. But it was not just the regular dancers, the rest of the cast had moves too. Everyone added to the sex and sizzle of the show.

As always, Melissa Harris (again, a Waiter-maenad and Dionysus’s beloved Ariadne too)  created pitch-perfect threads that complement the story line, including most of the uptight party dresses and suits in the first scene – garments that morphed from vintage dinner party to soft, drapey and decadent, right before your eyes, with just a few minor adjustments.

Where was Erika Bush in all the action? We are used to seeing her tall, powerful form in the front lines of the dance. Well, we understand Erika is pregnant – and this time with more than ideas. For her set, the banquet room of Mary and George’s manse, she clearly channeled Frederico Fellini, the Italian film director and screenwriter known for a distinct style that blends fantasy and baroque images with an earthiness. Brilliant and appropriately creepy.

Why “Dinner with Dionysus” is not an aberration in the history of Sasha Sullivan and Telluride Theatre:

Let the record speak for itself: over her 10-year history of creating original work in the Telluride region, Sasha & Co. have always been about making waves, attacking the status quo, especially its darker sides – but with a wink.

Consider a work dating back to 2010: “Cataclysm!,” in which we saw “Gilligan’s Island” meets “The Road.” That play, staged at the Deep Creek Mine, told the story of survivors who find each other after our nation suffers a complete environmental, governmental, and financial meltdown. Yes, somehow it was funny too.

Telluride Theatre’s “Urinetown,” was a musical about peeing (sort of) that was packed with witty conceits about social norms and trends. Like “Dionysus,” the production had a bursting-at-its-creative-seams (and, in that case, bladder) quality that was both nuanced and completely engaging.

Sasha’s “Pippin,” (2016), was a folksy fantasy that, while remaining true to Diane Paulus’ adaptation of the 1972 original, was a wild and crazy mash-up of Siddhartha/Candide and Faust. Like “Dionysus,” the musical burst with sensuality and magic tricks – also with tuneful Seventies pop-rock, and Existentialism 101. It also broke with Broadway and starred an all-woman ensemble cast.

Over the years, it has also been made abundantly clear that Sasha Sullivan has a thing for the naked truth.

Often, though not always, literally.

Sasha’s 2011 “CON” was a play about liars in which Sasha really bared her soul: it was inspired by her father, an infamous grifter.

The same year she first mounted “Dinner with Dionysus, again, in 2013,” Sasha’s winter blockbuster was an inspired adaptation of “Hair” in which the entire cast (minus school teachers) stripped in the name of drugs, sex, rock ‘n roll. They did that to underline the independence of their characters from authority and freedom from repression of any kind. Amen.

Both productions were hot – and not just because of the full frontal. But not nearly as hot as Sasha’s remix of “Dionysus” in which clothes stayed on – but the gloves (and the gowns and tuxes) come off.

“Dinner with Dionysus” is about social convention and letting go. And it delivers that message with booty-shaking intensity that borders on all-out insanity. The energy generated by the cast delivered what the opening night audience experienced as a seismic jolt. The crowd sat on the edge of its seats and chortled as the barbs hit home.

More about Dionysus:

Dionysus was a major, popular figure in Greek mythology and religion. Some say he arrived from the east and is an Asiatic foreigner; others claim his origins were in Ethiopia. He is the god of epiphany, often described as “the god that comes.” (Yes a very big deal was made of that gift of a description in the play.)

Dionysus’ “foreignness,” his identity as outsider who arrives/comes on to the scene was essential to his cults, which were all about the god protecting those who chose to live on the fringes of conventional society. In that capacity, Dionysus symbolized all that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Everything that escapes human reason.

Dionysus was the last god to be accepted onto Mt. Olympus, the youngest and the only one to have a mortal mother. (Zeus was his dad.) He is also an example of a dying-and-rising god, essentially a 19th-century conceit that developed because deities were outgrowths of everyday experiences and natural phenomena, which often end in death. In one story Dionysus is torn apart by the Titans, only to be reborn and immortalized. He is therefore one of a number of gods across ancient cultures whose birth, death, and resurrection parallel the story of Jesus.

Parallels with Jesus extend even further: ritual wine to connote the life source – Dionysus IS the wine – was common in his pagan rituals. (Christians believe the Eucharist is the body of Christ and the wine, his blood.)

And so on…

Dionysus, Bacchus to the Romans, had a reputation for debauchery and excess, which conjures images of orgies for some; celebrations for others. His wine, music and ecstatic dance supposedly freed his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverted the oppressive restraints of the powerful.

All of the above figured into the plot of “Dinner with Dionysus,” including the fact those orgies or celebrations – take your pick – were the driving force behind the development of Greek theatre.

 

 

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Susan Viebrock

Susan Viebrock

Susan is Telluride Inside… and Out’s founder and editor-in-chief, the visionary on the team, in charge of content, concept and development. For 19+ years, Susan has covered Telluride’s cultural economy, which includes non-profits and special events. Much of her writing features high-profile individuals in the arts, entertainment, business, and politics. She is a former Citibank executive specializing in strategic planning and new business development, and a certified Viniyoga instructor.

One Response

  1. Spot on, Sus. Sasha, Colin and their Telluride Theatre ensemble and technical crew all — everyone connected to this production (which I saw twice) — did an outstanding job. Kudos!