In Madeleine George’s comedy with a message piece, Hurricane Dianait’s the Greek demigod Dionysus (here focusing on his realms of vegetation and ecstasy) who has all the superpowers.
Returning to Earth disguised as Diane, a charming butch lesbian permaculture gardener, he plans to save the world from environmental ruin by using divine powers of seduction to recruit humans to his cause. Starting with four women in the upscale New Jersey suburbs.
Once they’re thrilled, Diane can urge women, and ultimately all of humanity, to abandon their beloved man-made environments – neatly manicured lawns, shopping malls, Panera Bread locations – and embrace a sustainable natural environment at Small scale.
But while Diana/Dionysus may have the authority of the gods in this fun, cute, light-hearted one-act play on preaching, the true power of Hurricane Diana (now on stage at Rec Room Arts) comes from this glorious, firing on all cylinders, lower your ass to see this show, production.
It’s almost hard to know where to start when singing the praises of this show, but as always, all good (or not) ultimately comes down to direction, so let’s start there.
A past Houston Press nominated for Best Direction (for her refined effort in, white plains), Lily Wolff once again shows shrewd control, never allowing the absurdity of the premise to crumble on its own. Especially when it comes to the treatment of Diane (Kasi Love), who spends most of the play talking directly to us as she hatches and tries to enact her plan.
Wisely, Wolff takes the divinity down a notch in these fourth-wall-breaking moments, positioning Diane off and in front of the stage itself, creating a more intimate, comedy club-like environment. But Diane is a god after all, so Wolff gives her a microphone to use periodically, but it’s for special, clever sonic accentuation without any supernatural banality.
This is Love’s acting debut (she spent over 15 years working behind the scenes) and it’s a confident and charismatic performance. Wolff may have guided Love to divine status, but now we’re curious to see where she could step out of the shadows and back onto the stage.
As for suburban women, who spend the entirety of the room in their identical subdivision, sleek white marble kitchens with French doors to backyards (Stefan Azizi once again does wonders with the small but mighty space Rec Room), I challenge you to name another set this seasoned with more chemistry and natural comedic fizz.
Wolff knows here that she has four remarkable talents, able to swing between comedy and pathos with the precision of a paper cut. No need to direct these actors too much, so Wolff employs a light hand.
We first meet Carol (a wonderfully tight Jeanne Harris), a high-strung, nervous pharmaceutical compliance officer who hoards HGTV magazines in hopes that one day she too will have the perfect editorial-worthy backyard. Not that she wants to go out and enjoy it. In fact, she never wants to go out.
While Carol’s husband seems willfully absent from her life, her neighbor Beth (Elizabeth Marshall Black oozing with soft misery) is recently single, abandoned by her husband and unable to pull herself together. Why just look at his lawn! She hasn’t had a haircut in twelve weeks, not to mention the fact that she could lose the house altogether as she has no marketable skills to stanch her financial haemorrhage.
Renee (Jasmine Renee Thomas oscillating wonderfully between melancholy and indignity) boasts of being the highest ranked black editor of a design magazine (Carol’s beloved HGTV magazine) and yet she is also deeply dissatisfied with this that she has become. Holding back ideas around her risk-averse white colleagues for fear of being perceived as “angry,” nostalgic for a past same-sex relationship, and eager to tread the needle in her own backyard, Renee is ready to return to the reality on all fronts.
Finally, there’s Pam (Chelsea Ryan McCurdy giving us the fabulous Jersey Shore), an Italian American superhousewife. She may not have god-like powers, but of the four neighbors and friends, she was the one who helped them all weather the last storm with her hurricane-proof basement and building supplies. emergency. She’s loud, she’s capable, she’s brash, and she tells it like it is, even though no one in her family ever listens or takes care of what she wants and needs.
Hats off to costume designer Harri Horsley for nailing these women’s looks perfectly. From Carol’s sultry heels and black cigarette pants to Renee’s soft and flowing tunics to Beth’s mishmash of all the comfy clothes she picked up off the floor, the outfits are spot on. However, none more so than the bevy of gloriously curvy head-to-toe leopard ensembles that Horsley gives Pam. If the leopard print could be a comedic actor, this might prove it.
Back to the ladies, all of whom George wrote about with gaping holes in their lives, vulnerabilities to exploit. Perfect for Diane to take advantage of during her rental to remodel her backyard. Yeah, it’s a little scary, this seduction/bedtime of less than healthy/happy women, even if it’s for the sake of the environment. But then what Greek myth or God isn’t scary to some degree? It’s just how this genre cookie crumbles.
How and why (or why not) Diane manages to attract women to the permaculture way of thinking and, as sidekicks, help spread environmental gossip globally, it works very well. George gives us pleasure and food for thought in these moments. “Why should I give up my creature comfort when comfort is all I have,” is the idea that cuts the most deeply.
But really, these scenes seem secondary to the thrill we get just seeing the four women together laughing, talking, sharing, and even arguing at times.
Part of that is the writing, George knows how to spice up those scenes with energetic dialogue. But really, it’s thanks to Wolff and his cast that these moments are naturally funny and not just a copycat version of a Desperate Housewives episode.
If you’re wondering if the hurricane in the title of the piece is just a metaphor, it’s not. There is a storm brewing in this room, one that will define Diane’s efforts and the choices women make. And this is where the final praise lands.
We’re no strangers to portrayals of storms in theaters, but Robert Meek (Sound Design) and Madeleine Reid (Lighting Design) really wow us with their long, explosive effects. Narratively, this isn’t your usual storm and these two do it superb justice. If only their efforts weren’t watered down slightly by an unnecessary and disappointing final scene.
To paraphrase Hamlet, it’s often the play that counts, and George’s work certainly has merit. But it turns out that the real seduction in this Hurricane Diana is production, production, production. Come on, laugh, have fun. And oh yeah, be better for the earth.
Hurricane Diane continues through May 28 at the Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. Visit recroomarts.org for tickets. $20-40.