Proclaiming herself “back with a vengeance,” Dionysus visits the Jersey Shore in “Hurricane Diane,” a modern update of Euripides’ tragedy “The Bacchae” that is currently having its world premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank.
It seems those carefully manicured lawns cherished by upwardly mobile Shore home owners aren’t environmentally friendly, and Dionysus would prefer it if the vegetation just grew wild. And so she takes the form of a lesbian gardener, Diane, and tries to win over a group of four female friends, who respond with various degrees of enthusiasm.
Diane/Dionysus then seduces them, both literally and figuratively. In playwright Madeleine George’s most daring move (skillfully negotiated by director Leigh Silverman), the play takes on, at times, some of the primal, ritualistic qualities of an actual Greek tragedy, as if to suggest the force of Dionysus coming back and transforming the world.
“Of course the Red Bank in this play is not the Red Bank we know,” George says in the play’s program. “It’s much wilder and stranger than that, because it’s inflected with the idiom of Greek tragedy. I grafted the ancient story onto the contemporary landscape because I wanted to ask questions about how we’re going to live through the coming changes to our planet, and I find it incredibly hard to ask those questions.”
Trans actor Becca Blackwell, who goes out of her way to seem androgynous (sporting a mustache even though Diane is supposed to be female), makes a fine Diane/Dionysus— confident and charming, good-naturedly playful at first but flashing larger-than-life anger when things don’t go her way.
There isn’t much depth to the four other characters, though, who are neighbors on a cul-de-sac, and seem to spend all their time hanging out in the kitchen, alone or together, drinking coffee or wine.
The naïve Beth (Kate Wetherhead) represents low-hanging fruit for Diane. Renee (Nikiya Mathis) is a gardening journalist who sees the wisdom of Diane’s lawn advice. Sandy (Mia Barron) is the most uptight and resistant to change. The blunt, no-nonsense, heavily accented Pam (Danielle Skraastad) seems channeled directly from an episode of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
“Hurricane Diane” is an unconventional, thought-provoking play, and the intimacy of the setting — it’s being presented in the Marion Huber Theater, the smaller of the Two River Theater’s two spaces — really allows the charismatic Blackwell to connect with the audience, particularly in her opening monologue.
But with the other characters so one-dimensional, it’s hard to really get caught up in the story, or care how it turns out.
“Hurricane Diane” will be at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through Feb. 12; visit tworivertheater.org.