There are provocative questions in Dionysus In Stony Mountain about our society, how we treat each other, and especially how we define justice.
—Joff Schmidt, CBC Theatre Reviewer
I saw Theatre Projects Manitoba's production of Dionysus In Stony Mountain the night after seeing Prairie Theatre Exchange's Till It Hurts - and it's hard to imagine two more different plays.
While Till It Hurts suffers from being overly sentimental at points and going for too-easy laughs, Dionysus' biggest flaw is that it's a play that lives too much in the head, and not enough in the heart. But it does offer a rich feast of intellectual discourse for those who like theatre that is very much of the mind.
Steven Ratzlaff, Winnipeg Playwright (CBC)
Winnipeg playwright Steven Ratzlaff's first full-length play is expanded from his 2009 Fringe production, which becomes this version's first act - the second act is new to this two-hour premiere production. And that second act does feel somewhat like a distant cousin of the first - the two parts don't quite gel perfectly.
Act one revolves around prison psychiatrist Heidi's (Sarah Constible) attempts to convince bipolar inmate James (Ross McMillan) to resume his lithium treatments so that he'll be eligible for parole from Stony Mountain.
James' discontinuation of his treatment has brought on an obsession with the philosopher Nietzsche - and as he expounds on his Nietzschean worldview (in a bravado performance by McMillan, who makes wrestling the wordy monologues look easy), the question arises - who is truly more imprisoned? Is it James, who feels he has a clear sense of his place in the world - or Heidi, who questions the value of the work she does?
Those questions come to bear in the second act, where the focus shifts more clearly to Heidi, who has to defend choices she's made in her life following her conversations with James to her uncle, Eric (also played by McMillan).
Ratzlaff's script is unabashedly intellectual - refreshing in a time when words like "intellectual" are often made to seem dirty. But it's not until near the play's end that it truly finds its heart in letting Heidi move from philosophizing to displaying genuine emotion (in a beautiful turn from Constible, who also does heroic work with the play's challenging dialogue).
That emotional engagement is welcome after being absent through much of the rest of the play - and having a stronger emotional anchor earlier in the play would make its philosophical arguments easier to engage with.
But while the play doesn't always engage on an emotional level, I did find myself drawn into the philosophical arguments (I won't claim to have understood all of the Nietzsche thrown at the audience, but Ratzlaff generally breaks it down for us successfully - and like Shakespeare, you're fine as long as you can get the broad points). Director Bill Kerr has a delicate touch with the material, and it's a joy to watch actors as good as Constible and McMillan work with such a smart script.
And perhaps most importantly, there are provocative questions in Dionysus In Stony Mountain
about our society, how we treat each other, and especially how we define justice - and those are particularly timely questions for Canadians.
Joff Schmidt, CBC Theatre Reviewer