It’s best not to think too much about Wilma Theater’s absurdist world-premiere “Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man” — especially during its disjointed set-up in the long first half, peopled by addle-brained ancient Greeks in the process of creating their own tragedy.
If you don’t overthink this or fuss at intermission about what you’ve just seen, you’ll be more amenable for the payoff: the bright and funny second half, when playwright Kate Tarker wraps it all up and the cows come home.
Seriously, cows play a role in this bizarre tale of an alcoholic shepherd, his loopy wife, their long-suffering daughter, and the son named Oedipus who walked out on them years back. Oedipus would end up famous, making more-than-innocent advances on his new mom and … wait! I’m getting ahead of myself. Then again, if I fully describe the plot and characters of “Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man,” I might lose all credibility. You don’t have to see it to believe it, although that helps.
So here’s the rough outline of this strange, vexing — and ultimately satisfying — play. A highly unreliable Grecian messenger (Mateo Scammell) comes on stage to ask us what, in any theatrical situation, might be a dangerous question: “Do you want to hear a story?” (We all presumably came for one, so, OK.) What ensues is not your typical Greek myth.
We’re in the suburban Corinth farmhouse of a drunken and clearly unglued shepherd (Luverne Seifert) and his not-much-better-off wife (Melanye Finister), a couple so befuddled it’s a wonder they know day from night. They were once given a basket with a boy in it, and they raised him until he bolted at 18 – more or less the tale written by Sophocles, whose Oedipus was raised by a shepherd.
Their daughter (Taysha Marie Canales) is stuck on the farm, but she’s not unhappy with being a shepherdess because, in the culture of this family, it’s a high calling. There’s a constant visitor, Jaimie, the hairdresser (Ross Beschler). Like good hairdressers of the era, he knows all the gossip, loves to spread it, and despises being seen as someone who does.
The shepherd, completely beholden to the god Dionysus (whose divine portfolio includes being the god of drink), has decided that when he soon turns 50 he wants Oedipus – now said to be the king of neighboring Thebes — to come home and celebrate. If not, he says, he’ll kill himself. We later see Oedipus (Keith Conallen), who, having stuck pins in his eyes, has no more sight but still plenty of libido.
If this all sounds ripe for a comic romp, it is, even if it comes a bit late in the evening with a fraught reunion, a rape trial in front of gods and goddesses, even a reference to upward mobility that’s one of the many juicy lines in the second act of Kate Tarker’s script. Her play is the first in a series of commissions by the Wilma’s Hothouse group, a core of actors and other theater artists and an incubator for developing talent and new work.
In this case, the new work is a challenge that the cast and designers meet with self-assured vigor. I’m not citing any single actor because each is a powerhouse befitting the characters, all under the vision of the accomplished director Dominique Serrand.
Kristen Robinson’s two-level farmhouse set looks like something out of a dream, and so do the costumes from Sonya Berlovitz. Myths are like dreams, but written down — and Tarker’s play is a cool new take on them.
“Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man” runs through May 12 at Wilma Theater, on Broad Street between Locust and Spruce Streets. 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.