Stage Door Review 2024

Dion: A Rock Opera

Saturday, February 10, 2024


Dion: A Rock Opera

music by Ted Dykstra, libretto by Steven Mayoff, directed by Peter Hinton-Davis

Coal Mine Theatre, 2076 Danforth Avenue, Toronto

February 8-March 3, 2024

Tiresias: “The word is evoe”

Dion: A Rock Opera is the first world premiere that Coal Mine Theatre has presented in its ten-year history. It is also its first musical. That a small theatre company should reach such a milestone is a real achievement and a testament to all those who have steadfastly supported the company’s thought-provoking work. Dion, with music composed by Coal Mine’s Co-Artistic Director Ted Dykstra, is an exciting, challenging work. There are difficulties with Steven Mayoff’s libretto, but Dykstra’s music is unfailingly inventive and the direction and performances top-notch.

In a world where so many recent musicals have been anthologies of pre-existing hits or been based on unimportant movies, it is refreshing to find a musical that takes on one of Ancient Greece’s greatest plays. Dykstra has chosen no less a subject than Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae first performed in 405BC about the demigod Dionysus and his followers. The play in many ways is the most complete expression of Euripides’ radical critique of Greek religion, though one would hardly guess that from the musical.

Diana Bentley, the other Co-Artistic Director of Coal Mine, calls Dion a “reimagining” of The Bacchae. The question the creators of the musical need to settle is whether Dion is a theatre work totally free of its source or whether it is Euripides’ tragedy told in song. If the first is the case, then one wonders why the musical is not internally consistent. If the second is the case, then one wonders why the creators have removed all the negative elements from the character of Dionysus and his followers.

The musical, like the play, concerns the demigod Dionysus (known also as Bacchus and, in the musical, as Dion) and the overpowering effect he has on those who worship him. Dionysus has come to the Greek city of Thebes, a city founded by his grandfather Cadmus, to win over more disciples as he has in every previous city he has visited. Claiming to be the son of Zeus, he establishes his own cult of worship in which his devotees, known as Bacchae, Bacchantes or Maenads (literally, “mad women”), dance, sing and work themselves into a frenzy until they are able to perform superhuman feats such as uprooting trees and tearing cattle limb from limb.

Pentheus, king of Thebes after the abdication of Cadmus, is aghast at this development and vows to put a stop to it, especially since Agave, his own mother, has joined the Maenads. He thinks Dionysus must be a charlatan since the so-called demigod says his mother was Semele, another daughter of Cadmus. The court’s official line is that Semele was made pregnant by a mere human before her death, not by a god, least of all Zeus.

The real story is that Zeus had fallen in love with Semele and, incredible as it may seem, visited her in the form of a cloud. When she demanded to see her lover in his true form, he reluctantly agreed and his fiery radiance incinerated her. Zeus, however, was quick enough to rescue the foetus of his son before Semele completely fell to ashes and sewed it into his thigh. Thence it was born. Since Agave and Semele were sisters, Pentheus and Dionysus are cousins.

Pentheus sends his troops to exterminate Dionysus and the Maenads but, in the play but not the musical, the Maenads are so fierce they scare the troops away. Dionysus, in disguise as a mortal, advises Pentheus that his best strategy would be to spy on the Maenads’ revels to discover the secret of their power. To avoid detection Pentheus disguises himself as a woman to observe their rites, but Dionysus points him out, and Agave in her frenzy tears what she thinks is a lion limb from limb only to realize the horror of her deed once the frenzy subsides.

Dykstra’s musical begins with a song by Tiresias, an ancient soothsayer who appears in numerous Greek tragedies, telling us that the important word today is “evoe”. In English, via Latin, this represents the Greek word εὐοῖ, “an exclamation of Bacchic frenzy” (as defined in the programme), derived from Εὔιος (Eúios), one of the epithets for Dionysus. This word is so important that designer Scott Penner has had it written all over the modern clothing he gives the chorus of Dionysus’ worshippers.

What is odd from this first song throughout the entire musical is that “evoe” is never sung as a cry of “Bacchic frenzy”. Rather, as Dykstra has set it, the word sounds more like a sigh of sexual satisfaction or a chant of meditation on the order of the sacred Sanskrit syllable “Om”.

This might seem an unusual choice considering the source, but Mayoff characterizes the followers of Dion in an entirely different way from Euripides. For nearly all of the show’s 70 minutes the followers are not aggressive. What they worship in Dion is the possibility of celebrating their sexuality, whichever way it happens to turn. As per the great song Mayoff and Dykstra give Tiresias, “The Great Reclaiming”, the followers also wish to undo the harm that mankind has done to nature and the environment.

The difficulty in portraying Dion’s followers as intent only on peace, love and “reclaiming” nature is that it makes the musical’s gruesome ending completely unexpected and incongruous. Euripides, in contrast, carefully prepares us for the ending. In Dionysus’ first speech he explains that he has punished the Theban women with madness for denying his divine paternity: “So I’ve driven those women from their homes / in a frenzy — they now live in the mountains, / out of their minds” (lines 33-35, trans. Ian Johnson). Later Euripides introduces the character of the Cattle Herder who gives Pentheus a long report of the Maenads’ activities: “Those Bacchic women, all unarmed, / went at the heifers browsing on the turf, / using their bare hands. You should have seen one / ripping a fat, young, lowing calf apart — / others tearing cows in pieces with their hands”.

In Mayoff’s libretto there is no such passage as the Cattle Herder’s speech. That is because he is for too intent on portraying Dion and his followers as “right” and Pentheus and his men as “wrong”. Such simplification completely misses the complexities in Euripides’ play and his concept of Dionysus. As Mayoff mentions, Dionysus represents theatre, illusion and intoxication in all forms. What he neglects is that Dionysus also represents what it wild, irrational and uncontrolled. In a production of the play, even in Stratford’s misguided version in 2017, there is an increase in dramatic tension when Pentheus tries to spy on the Maenads. In the musical there is none. In fact, Mayoff had portrayed Dion’s followers as so peace-loving I assumed he had also changed the ending so that Pentheus would convert to their way of thinking.

In another significant change, Mayoff has Pentheus lead a massacre of Dion’s followers. Having Pentheus first encounter the Maenads as a murderer negates the necessity for having him later spy on them to see their rituals. Why should he care about their rites when he can just kill them? Showing Pentheus’ success in exterminating Maenads also denies the Maenads the extraordinary power that faith in Dionysus has given them.

Mayoff has also narrowed the story’s scope by viewing it as the tragedy of Pentheus. Yet, isn’t Agave’s fate to have unknowingly killed her own son at least as tragic? The last seventh of Euripides’ play focusses on Agave, her terrible realization of what she has done and her acceptance of the ignominy that will forever follow her. In the musical Mayoff has Dion quickly change the grieving Agave into a serpent which seems like a second punishment, but it does preclude his having to deal further with her.

In Euripides, Dionysus gives Agave greater dignity by sending  her into exile. Dionysus also exiles Cadmus and his wife Harmonia, later changing them into serpents, since his revenge has been against all of Thebes for its impiety, not just against a single person. As he states, “You Thebans learned about my powers too late. / Dishonouring me, you earn the penalty” (lines 1323-24). Mayoff’s conclusion may be that Dion teaches us to live life moment to moment. Euripides, however, does not hold any god up as a model for behaviour, “The gods appear in many forms, carrying with them unwelcome things. /… / That’s what this story has revealed” (lines 1388-92).

Luckily these flaws in the libretto do not affect the quality of Dykstra’s music which ranges from chant and folksong to rap and hymns. Dykstra’s musical depiction of Pentheus often recalls Andrew Lloyd Webber’s depiction of Pontius Pilate. Some songs are so entrancing we wish they would carry on longer, like Agave’s “Poison to Wine” or Tiresias’ rousing anthem “The Great Reckoning”. The song “Represent”, dealing with a topic rarely found in musicals, could easily have been expanded. “Moment to Moment” that Dykstra gives to Dion should be a candidate for the Great Canadian Songbook.

Designer Scott Penner has given director Peter Hinton-Davis an awkward space to use. It is a narrow alley about 25 seats long allowing for only two rows of seats on either side. Yet, Hinton-Davis and choreographer Kiera Sangster make movement in this space look completely natural. The tennis-match effect of watching the action merely makes one feel closer more involved in it.

Hinton-Davis has drawn totally committed performances from the entire cast. All have strong voices and it is real pleasure that Coal Mine has not thought it necessary to amplify them.

Jacob MacInnis (they/them) is an ideal Dion. They carefully shape their words as if savouring their meaning and they are adept at adopting an air of inscrutability so that we as well as the characters feel that Dion is imagining much more than they are saying.

Allister MacDonald (they/them) successful traces the major change in Pentheus from rabid opponent of Dion to one willingly subject to their power. It’s rather a pity that Mayoff seems to base the character so much on a former US president and would-be dictator since authoritarianism ought to be more frightening than funny.

Carly Street gives a sympathetic portrait of Agave, always in the shadow of her sister Semele, who attracted the notice of a god. Street manages the nearly impossible task of depicting with restraint how horror overcomes Agave at the end when she gradually realizes what she has done.

Allan Louis displays such a rich baritone as Cadmus one wonders why we haven’t heard him in a singing role before. He makes Cadmus’s rekindling of his love for Tiresias and his reconciliation with Agave the most moving moments of the musical.

SATE as Tiresias, along with Louis, is able to imbue the text with the greatest emotion. Her ecstatic rendition of her two main numbers – “The Word Is Evoe” and “The Great Reclaiming” – set and reset the action in a fervent, non-satirical context.

The Chorus of followers of Dion – Max Borowski, Saccha Dennis, Kaden Forsberg and Kelsey Verzotti – harmonize beautifully and execute Sangster’s often intricate choreography with amazing precision.

The music, performances, themes and staging of Dion are of such a high level they will enthrall most audience members. At only 70 minutes, though, I feel there is room for Mayoff and Dykstra to explore more fully the ambiguity of that Dionysus represents, a project that will only make the work stronger. This may be Dion’s world premiere, but I would like to think it is the first major step toward the making of an even greater musical.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Saccha Dennis, Kelsey Verzotti, Max Borowski and Kaden Forsberg as the Chorus with Jacob MacInnis (centre) as Dion; Allister MacDonald as Pentheus with Kelsey Verzotti in background; SATE as Tiresias; Carly Street as Agave; Allan Louis as Cadmus. © Dahlia Katz.

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