'Dion: A Rock Opera' World Premiere
Now onstage at Toronto's Coal Mine Theatre
Credit: Dahlia Katz. Jacob MacInnis as Dion and members of the Chorus
"A suggestively sexy seventy minutes of Dionysian pleasure. Electrifying dramatic staging. But it’s not for everyone. The stretching of sexual ethics might be troubling for some audience members."
Based on ‘The Bacchae’ by Euripides and set in the City State of Thebes somewhere in time, Coal Mine’s world premiere of ‘Dion: A Rock Opera’ explores the myth of the god Dionysius, the son of Zeus and Semele (who died in childbirth). In this re-working adaptation, the self-proclaimed, non-binary Demi-God Dion (Jacob MacInnis) leads the Thebans out of the city to drink wine, get drunk and enjoy the Dionysian pleasures that come with it all.
The arrival of conservative right-wing leader and King of Thebes, Pentheus, (Allister MacDonald), brings conflict because they have heard of Dion. Pentheus learns Dion is their cousin. Mother of Pentheus, Agave (Carly Street), and uncle, Cadmus, grandfather of Dion and Pentheus (Allan Louis), are two who ran away with the Thebans. We also learn a bit of the backstory behind Agave and Cadmus.
Destruction ultimately reigns when Pentheus is seduced into ‘dressing’ as a woman and going to the hills to see what’s happening at all this Dionysian debauchery.
‘Dion’ is a suggestively sexy and sometimes violent seventy minutes of Dionysian pleasure that might make some audience members feel a tad ill at ease.
That happened to me periodically.
But that’s what theatre does. It pushes audiences to new perspectives, sometimes received and sometimes with questionable pushback.
Peter Hinton-Davis is an artful director. He masterfully stages some electrifying and intensely dark visual scenes that are attractive and uncomfortable to watch, most noteworthy in grappling with the issues of sexuality. Kiera Sangster creates distinct choreographed ‘swivel and strut’ movements, especially among the Chorus. Thankfully, I could hear every word Composer Ted Dykstra and Librettist Steven Mayoff had markedly constructed, so a grateful handshake to Sound Design of Tim Lindsay. The double entendres in the lyrics, snappy dialogue, and gorgeous-sounding rock vocal work remain primo, thanks to Music Director Bob Foster. There are moments when I thought I could hear musical sounds akin to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar. ' The Chorus singing: “Dion, Dion, Dion, my God, Dion” is only one example.
Scott Penner cleverly creates a practical set design within the intimate confines of the Coal Mine Theatre - an elongated brick walkway in the centre with the audience on both sides. The end of each walkway (which I will call Stage left and right) mirrors each other. A circular mirror hangs on each back wall, with two chairs underneath. There are two beautiful-looking backsides of Greek statues from the audience's viewpoint. One of these statues is male, and the other is female. Penner’s costumes vibrantly dazzle throughout the show, most noteworthy in the Chorus’s initial appearance at the top of the show and Dion’s shimmering gold lamé dress.
Bonnie Beecher’s blood-red lighting hauntingly foreshadows what will come. It assuredly catches the eye with a striking visual effect as the audience enters the auditorium. Additionally, there is another striking visual moment where Dion and Pentheus appear in their own spotlight. This moment clearly reveals who is in control.
This nine-member cast kept me riveted with their arresting performance work. I held my breath, though, and considered how far they might go in pushing the twisting of sexual ethics.
There were a couple of moments when I needed air.
Nevertheless, the cast is extraordinary.
The Chorus of Max Borowski, Saccha Dennis, Kaden Forsberg and Kelsey Verzotti take their places onstage the last few minutes of the pre-show. They enter quietly and walk to their chairs, exuding confidence. Their ‘fashionable’ costumes also draw attention to them. When the performance begins, these four strong artists remain in synchronistic simpatico with each other throughout the running time.
SATE plays Tiresias, a blind prophet and former advisor to Pentheus. She introduces the audience to an understanding of the word EVOE emblazoned in large dark letters on each of the costumes worn by the Chorus. SATE sings the opening number, ‘THE WORD IS EVOE,’ with a remarkable, understated, sensuous passion that might appear to boil over at any moment. Since the story is set in a Dionysian world, I wondered if EVOE might be a deliberate and twisted play on the misspelling of the word LOVE and all its connotations in our woke twenty-first-century world.
Carly Street and Allan Louis represent the other side of this Bacchanalia frenzy, respectively, as Agave and Cadmus. While we have younger people singing about the gluttonous revelry of wine and intoxication, there is something unique about Agave and Cadmus. She is angry at her father, Cadmus. Yet, beneath her anger, there is an inherent sense of dignity and grace about Street’s Agave. Allan Louis is a smartly dressed yet very mysterious Cadmus. When the two finally join in the reverie, everything changes for both.
Allister MacDonald and Jacob MacInnis deliver gripping work as Pentheus and Dion. They are another reason to see the production. Fearless and audacious, MacDonald and MacInnis attack their roles with a lustful gusto that raises the sexual chemistry in and of the moment. MacInnis struts and prowls both in a sinewy and feline-like seductive fashion. At first, MacDonald is the exact opposite. They’re enraged, hot-headed, and about to explode until Pentheus and Dion confront each other head-on. MacInnis and MacDonald’s vocal work are sublime in their musical numbers. Neither of them sounds hoarse or ragged.
However, MacDonald and MacInnis push this twisting of sexual ethics and mores. Pentheus’s ‘dressing’ as a woman might or could be viewed as becoming a woman in our woke world. I hurriedly scribbled down a line one of the characters sang during the performance: “The truth is…What is the truth?”
Is this what it’s come to? Our woke twenty-first-century world cannot state what truth is even within sexual ethics.
These questions can make for an exciting discussion, perhaps at a talkback after a performance. I hope Coal Mine has scheduled some.
And Another Thing: Some audience members of religious persuasion might find this mythical re-telling and adaptation somewhat sophistical and dubious. Potential theatregoers may not be as accepting of the implications of the sexuality presented.
Let’s not forget that good theatre must continue challenging its audiences to new perspectives. ‘Dion: A Rock Opera’ does just that. But be prepared for any pushback from those audience members who might disagree.
Running time: approximately 70 minutes with no interval/intermission.
‘Dion: A Rock Opera’ runs until March 3 at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, 2076 Danforth Avenue. For tickets: https://tickets.coalminetheatre.com/
‘Dion: A Rock Opera’ Composed by Ted Dykstra and Libretto by Steven Mayoff
Directed by Peter Hinton Davis
Musical Director: Bob Foster
Choreographer: Kiera Sangster
Set and costumes: Scott Penner
Lighting: Bonnie Beecher
Sound by Tim Lindsay
Piano: Bob Foster; Guitar and Percussion: Haneul Yi; Bass: Kat McLevey
Performers: Max Borowski, Saccha Dennis, Kaden Forsberg, Allan Louis, Allister MacDonald, Jacob MacInnis, SATE, Carly Street, Kelsey Verzotti