Monday, September 12, 2022

Nothing But Thunder - Gods Behaving Badly

Review by Byrne Harrison
Photo credit: Duncan Pflaster Photography and Graphic Design

Dionysus.  God of theatre and wine.  Son of Zeus.  A man who can drive women to the heights of ecstasy or madness.  And a complete spoiled brat.

In Duncan Pflaster's latest classically-inspired romp, NOTHING BUT THUNDER, Dionysus (Spencer Gonzalez) has a chance to fulfill his greatest desire - to finally ascend to Olympus and become a full god.  To do so, all he has to do is find his dead mother in Tartarus, where she is being tortured for sleeping with Zeus and offending his wife Hera, and bring her back to the land of the living.

A difficult feat, to be sure, but one that other demigods have accomplished.  The only thing standing between him and his goal is his own hubris, and a burly shepherd, Prosymnus (Kenny Wade Marshall), with an eye for beautiful men, who knows exactly what Dionysus needs to become the god he is meant to be, instead of the self-serving hedonist that he has always been.

Kenny Wade Marshall (L) as Prosymnus and Spencer Gonzalez (R) as Dionysus

Helped by his loyal, sardonic slave Xanthias (Matt Biagini), his former wife Ariadne (Olivia Kinter), and eventually his mother Semele, (Alyssa Simon) Dionysus travels a road to self-discovery that leads to an unexpected, but ultimately fulfilling climax.

NOTHING BUT THUNDER once again demonstrates playwright Duncan Pflaster's talent for making modern plays in classical styles.  As he did with his Shakespeare-inspired sequels, THE THYME OF THE SEASON and MALVOLIO'S REVENGE, or his Chekhovian comedy THE STARSHIP ASTROV, Pflaster demonstrates his gift for comedy, his talent for capturing the spirit of the genre or playwright, and especially in this play, his gift for raunchy and extremely witty humor.  There is plenty of X-rated wordplay in NOTHING BUT THUNDER, and a fair amount of nudity, too.

Spencer Gonzalez as Dionysus

The cast does a marvelous job, with most of the actors portraying multiple characters and serving as the chorus.  Biagini hits just the right notes as the often put-upon servant of Dionysus.  With a sly smile, he often scores a point or two on his master, not that Dionysus is self-aware enough to realize.  Gonzalez, as Dionysus, shows remarkable range as his character develops.  The Dionysus he presents in the final scenes is such a far cry from the callow youth he starts out as. His portrayal of Dionysus's sinuous sexuality, and his utter bewilderment when it that sexuality doesn't seem to work on Prosymnus and his down-to-earth sister Adelpha (played with sly wink by Katrina Dykstra), is a delight to watch.  Kenny Wade Marshall's Prosymnus is more than what he first appears, and Marshall does a great job portraying the man and the mentor that Dionysus needs, as well as Hades in later scenes.  Alyssa Simon is a stellar Semele, especially in her quieter moments of the play when she starts to realize the pitfalls of being alive again and where she might finally fit in.  Olivia Kinter likewise does a great job as Ariadne, as complex a woman as would be expected for someone like Dionysus.

Rounding out the cast is Eric Hedlund who plays Hermes, Zeus and a scene-stealing Sisyphus (with rock).  A dynamic physical actor, he add movement and drama to his many scenes.

As is typical both for festivals and opening nights, there were some technical issues and the timing seemed a bit off, but frankly nothing that won't get evened out as the performances move forward.   Director Aliza Shane goes big with her direction, the play is full of movement, both in terms of utilizing the space, and in how the actors perform.  They bend, they move, the come together in posed portraits, and when they are still they command attention.  It is kinetic and fascinating to watch.

NOTHING BUT THUNDER is another worthy addition to Plaster's body of work.  Presented as part of the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City, remaining performances are Wednesday, September 14th and Sunday, September 18th.

Written by Duncan Pflaster
Directed by Aliza Shane
Assistant Director/Stage Manager Roberto Alexander
Intimacy & Fight Consultant Sharon Litwinoff
Photography and Graphic Design by Duncan Pflaster

Matt Biagini - Xanthias
Katrina Dykstra - Adelpha / Chorus 1
Olivia Kinter - Ariadne / Dryad / Chorus 2
Alyssa Simon - Semele / Chorus 3
Spencer Gonzalez - Dionysus
Eric Hedlund - Hermes / Sisyphus / Zeus / Chorus 4
Kenny Wade Marshall - Prosymnus / Hades

NOTHING BUT THUNDER is a phone-free performance.  Yondr provides secure pouches for mobile devices.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Belfast Girls - Hope, Hypocrisy and Grim Reality

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In the late 1840's the colonial government of Ireland, in the face of a severe famine and resulting economic crisis, came up with the Orphan Emigration Scheme. Capitalizing on the severe shortage of woman in Australia, the Irish authorities shipped over 4,000 women there with the promise of a better life. These historical events forming the basis of Jaki McCarrick's involving drama Belfast Girls, now at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

The story takes place in 1850 on board the sailing ship Inchinnan, which is transporting approximately 200 women to the land down under. As the ship makes ready to sail, five women find themselves sharing a partitioned space for the journey. Judith (Caroline Strange), originally from Jamaica and the de facto leader of the group; Hannah (Mary Mallen), whose father sold her to a pimp; Ellen (Labhaoise Magee) a refugee from the prison workhouses who likes to draw; Sarah, (Sarah Street) a country girl whose brother has preceded her to Australia; and Molly (Aida Leventaki) who yearns to perform on the stage and is constantly reading books. Over the course of their three-month voyage friendships will be formed, tested and torn apart as these women are forced to confront secrets they've desperately tried to keep hidden.

(L-R) Caroline Strange, Labhaoise Magee & Mary Mullern in Belfast Girls. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Belfast Girls is first and foremost, a tale of second chances. Where each of the five has the chance to remake themselves into anything they wish and become "mistress of their own destiny". At least on the journey. Some of the girls using this time to broaden their intellectual horizons. Such as Judith, who secretly yearns to be a teacher, and finds herself infected with Molly's passion for learning. Or Molly, who talks about women’s rights and how things are changing in the world; and also how they now have the chance to be a part of that change.

At the same time the play continually calls forth a feeling of cynicism. One lurking just beneath its hopeful surface. For example, exactly how were some of the women able to secure passage on the ship? Many of the 200 older and far less innocent than what the government advertisements were supposedly seeking. There’s also the ultimate realization that these woman weren't so much escaping Ireland, but actually "spat out" by those who used Australia's need as a chance to empty the workhouses and poorhouses so they could become someone else's problem. The story also takes a swipe at the "rose-colored glasses" effect nostalgia brings forth when the women talk about missing the beauty of Ireland. Even though most of them experienced far more suffering, misery and heartbreak there than anything else.

                     (L-R) Aida Leventaki and Sarah Street in Belfast Girls.  Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It's also interesting to see how, during the voyage, the women become part of a closed-off world. They dividing themselves into different cliques and gangs, each wary and untrusting of the others. Which is why, even before the play begins, Judith, Hannah and the rest have positioned their luggage to create a barrier in their space to separate themselves from the others. All in an attempt to remain isolated and safe. Yet even among the group of five, class and economic prejudices begin to show as the girls wonder just who exactly is to blame for the miseries that have brought them to this point. Eventually these hatreds come bubbling to the surface, as those seeking someone to blame begin to lash out.

Although some of the women come off as more fully formed than others, each character has an clear individual personality and back story. Any one of which could be the basis for a play of its own. Strange gives Judith a nice world-weary and dangerous quality. Leventaki projects just the right amount of wide-eyed hopeful innocence as Molly. Magee, Street and Mallen show their characters to be well-versed in the practices of denial and forgiveness, though as one comes to find out, their efforts can be misplaced at times.

Also key to the story is director Nicola Murphy's careful pacing, which realistically imparts the impression of a long and claustrophobic voyage. The women suffering through everything from seasickness, sweltering heat to violent storms as they try to get along while not getting on each other’s nerves. Yet through it all, there are some on the boat who never want the journey to end. For once it does, all that will be waiting for them is an uncertain future. The use of traditional Irish songs also adds a nice touch.

(L-R) Labhaoise Magee, Mary Mallen, Caroline Strange, Sarah Street and Aida Leventaki in Belfast Girls. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Belfast Girls, the title taken from the place the five ladies embarked on the voyage, tells the story of women who risked everything for the hope life would be better on the other side of the world. By the time the journey is over, one's feel like they've taken the entire voyage with them, and can't help but root for them to find the peace and happiness they've been seeking.

Featuring: Aida Leventaki (Molly Durcan), Labhaoise Magee (Ellen Clarke), Mary Mallen (Hannah Gibney), Caroline Strange (Judith Noone), Sarah Street (Sarah Jane Wylie).

Belfast Girls

by Jaki McCarrick

Scenic Design: Chika Shimizu
Costume Design: China Lee
Lighting Design: Michael O'Connor
Sound Design: Caroline Eng
Music Consultant: Gregory Grene
Properties: Brandy Hoang Collier
Fight & Intimacy Director: Leana Gardella
Movement Director: Erin O'Leary
Dialect Coach: Julie Foh
Hair & Wig Design: Rachael Geier
Production Stage Manager: Avery Trunko
Assistant Stage Manager: Mary Garrigan
Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations
General Manger: Lisa Fine
Directed by Nicola Murphy

Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running Time 2 hours, ten minutes, with one intermission
Closes: June 26, 2022

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for the Epoch Times and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.