Real Housewives of Dionysus: Hurricane Diane takes on climate change

Photo by Charles Osgood.

Another day, another supernatural visitor heads to New Jersey. Marvel fans already know the havoc that Wanda Maximoff (aka The Scarlet Witch) wrought when she took over one Garden City town after the death of her lover Vision. Now residents of a different community must deal with the equally clandestine arrival of the god Dionysus, whose complaint is nothing less than the fact that the human race has utterly trashed the planet, and it isn’t going to help to wake up in the morning and buy yourself a gun…even if SCOTUS has made that easier to do. (Why New Jersey, of all places, must bear the brunt of the paranormal vengeance these magical personages feel they must take, especially after already suffering massively during Hurricane Sandy, is unclear. Maybe it’s payback for the absurd cultural void of “Jersey Shore” or, perhaps, for Chris Christie.)

Whatever the reason for the setting, Madeleine George’s Hurricane Diane, now playing at Theatre Wit in a new production directed by Jeremy Wechsler, is a stark (and utterly hilarious) reminder that we have to play nice with our world. Dionysus, played by the always-brilliant Kelli Simpkins, hates what is becoming of the world that used to afford opportunities for Bacchanal festivals, and she (rightly) blames humanity for the death of nature. She has been lying low for far too long and feels that it is time to retake control. As Simpkins explains at the outset, the god has decided to find new followers to worship her with the same decadence and hedonism with which the ancient Greeks did.

So why not choose a small cul de sac in suburban New Jersey to begin this great comeback project?

Dionysus, rechristened “Diane,” appears as a permaculture gardener bent on convincing the four women on this small dead-end street to buy in to a kind of horticultural freedom none of them, with their beautiful manicured lawns and ornamental benches, have ever considered. Diane explains to them the advantages of a more natural style, devoid of the artifice (and excess watering) of grass and focusing on natural ground cover and fruit trees. She foresees that, once she has caught them up in her plan, they will all worship her as the ancients did, with their drunken festivals and animalistic furor, and she can begin the reclamation of the planet.

Simpkins is the perfect choice to play the decadent Diane: their androgynous presentation combined with preternatural energy control makes it easy to believe that the god of wine and partying is perfectly ready to seduce anyone she needs to. That she begins with an all-female group of worshipers seems to be more pragmatic than anything else: they are the ones who are home. But even though these woman have mostly been perfectly straight in their love lives and marriages, they immediately start to fall victim to the god’s technique, which after all has been honed over several thousand years. The inordinate pleasure that Simpkins shows them (and us) is utterly believable…and it’s easy to see why they want to serve her.

Well, most of them do.

For three of the women on the cul de sac, Diane’s sexual overtures and gardening brilliance make worshiping her easy. Beth (played by Aneisa Hicks, though LaKecia Harris played the role very well on the night I saw the production) is Diane’s first and easiest mark, since she is currently a desperate housewife in need of purpose in her life. Her husband has left her, she is broke and the topic of her neighbors’ gossip, and she needs to believe in something. Once she surrenders her garden (and herself) to Diane, the dominoes start to fall.

Diane’s second Jersey Shore maenad is Jazmin Corona’s Renee, an lesbian editor for HGTV Magazine who doesn’t need to be convinced at all that Diane’s ideas are on the right track. (Renee is even hurt that she wasn’t Diane’s first choice, but it’s hard to blame the goddess for going with the low-hanging fruit.) After Beth and Renee, Diane captures Lori Myers’ Pam, a New Jersey Italian woman right out of “The Sopranos” who at first wants a garden straight out of a picture of a Tuscan villa but succumbs to Diane’s wiles. Myers’ gloriously over the top portrayal of Pam includes a broad Jersey Italian accent, big heels, and a series of tight animal print dresses, one more insane than the other, and it is clear she’s having a great time with all of it.

All Diane needs is the fourth one to get her world takeover in gear, but she runs into trouble with Carolyn Kruse’s Carol. Kruse exults in playing the lonely abandoned housewife whose husband is never at home (due to infidelity) but who still demands the kind of garden that she has dreamed of, probably as a response to how out of control the rest of her life is.

All four women play their scenes on the same kitchen set, which we are told is a cookie-cutter design shared by all the houses on the street. (An intentionally highly conspicuous switching of one decorative plant serves to signal when we are in a new home.) Occasionally, we are seeing scenes simultaneously occurring in all of the houses; director Wechsler allows them to overlap at times, but lighting and staging keeps them distinct enough that they are never confusing. (It’s actually sort of wonderful when, after a bunch of these scenes happen, we suddenly discover that two neighbors we think are in their own homes are actually in one kitchen: Wechsler and George keep us on our toes.)

As Diane’s scheme moves toward fruition, another Sandy-style storm is bearing down on the Jersey shore, and George pulls no punches as she blames unchecked human-caused climate change as the culprit for all of the natural disasters befalling the world. Diane, who is seductive as she tries to gain new acolytes, is angry and powerful as she excoriates humanity for its failure to do anything to prevent what will surely be the end of the world. Joe Schermoly’s set, Piper Kirchhofer’s lights, and Joyce Ciesil’s sound all help to present both the joys of Diane’s visions and the devastation and destruction when that vision is failing. In fact, all of the tech and design elements are excellent here. Mara Blumenfeld and Maddy Low have designed excellent costumes for everyone. In addition to Myers’ dresses and heels, highlights include Simpkins’ Dionysian armor and the identical red costumes of the acolytes, who writhe and dance and chant to Brigitte Ditmars’ wonderful choreography and Andre Pluess’ original music.

Climate change and the disasters it continues to bring may not be anything to laugh about, but George is smart enough to know that a 90-minute TED Talk isn’t going to be anywhere near as effective at getting the message across as a clever comedy full of outrageous characters and inventive spectacle. As the unnamed real hurricane tears through this tiny neighborhood, destroying homes and gardens and HGTV magazines alike, Hurricane Diane (aka Dionysus) blows in hoping to change the future, but that can only happen if we decide we want it to. Until then, we can watch plays like this, laugh at our own folly, and batten down the hatches.

Hurricane Diane is playing through July 31 at Theatre Wit.

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