FILM REVIEW: BIG D(IANE) ENERGY

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Audience members who visit the Red Barn Theater over the next four weeks will be treated to a playful and realistic comedy. “Hurricane Diana” follows a female incarnation of the Greek god Dionysus, who has come to Earth in contemporary times to gather a cult of followers in an effort to reshape the planet’s future.

A setup like this could play dark or overly academic, but instead, complete comedy, as the main character decides the most effective way to gain followers is to seduce a group of New Jersey housewives. As a butch permaculture expert, Diane goes to work rounding up suburban landscaping contracts and hopefully the bored women who sign them. The 90-minute play is a new work, written by Madeleine George, a new voice in American theater. “Hurricane Diane” premiered off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop in 2019, winning the Obie Award for Playwriting the same year.

Dionysus was the Greek mythological equivalent of Bacchus, a god of wine and ecstasy, vegetation and fertility. A male god, he bent the rules of gender being born male and raised, in some interpretations, as a female. Basically, Dionysus was the representative of all things sexy in ancient Greece. “Hurricane Diane” brings back this sensual deity in the form of Diane, the irresistible Vermont lesbian. The first pool of light, skillfully placed by Jack MacDonald, features Erin McKenna in the title role. Playing a bit against type, McKenna locks herself into the audience with swagger and charisma. She’s in control, telling the audience that she knows the soon-to-be-introduced Housewives don’t stand a chance. After all, she has thousands of years of seduction on her side. McKenna continues to maintain her dynamism throughout the piece, conveying volumes with the blink of an eye or raising a conscious eyebrow.

Once Diane sets the stage, her suburban targets are presented. Carol, played with neuroses perfectly simmered by Caroline Taylor, is the inescapable antagonist. A mid-level business, Carol wants a lawn her neighbors will love. She is not a woman who is interested in permaculture, nor in flirting for that matter. Taylor’s frantic backing off against McKenna’s slow, sultry advances gives the game the perfect back-and-forth.

The rest of the attendees at the cul-de-sac klatch cafe are played by three of Key West’s top female leads. (You’ve already met the other two.) Susannah Wells plays Renee, an HGTV editor who secretly longs to relive her lesbian glory days. Wells delivers a powerful character who leans into whatever this new “permaculture expert” can sell. Jessica Miano Kruel’s Pam brings leopard print, good posture and a killer accent to the group. It might not be Jersey without Kruel’s version of Jersey’s ultimate Italian housewife. She has the arrogance of the Sopranos, but her desire to have a formal garden to compensate for the fact that she has never been able to visit the country in person tells the public that she secretly yearns for something… of more. Lauren Thompson completes the group as Beth, a woman recovering from the dissolution of her marriage. Thompson might allow the role to turn into self-pity or caricature, but it doesn’t. She carries the character through grief and uncertainty with humor and confidence.

Overall, the play unfolds at a brisk pace. The scenes quickly blend into each other and the laughs come easily. The five actors hold court and hold character, playing against each other with expert timing and fluidity. Director Joy Hawkins manages her talent expertly, confining them where it suits the script and letting them go wild when the time demands it. The sexuality in the play seems a bit dulled, and it could be argued that things might go a bit past the point of chastity. After all, here we are looking at a lesbian god of ecstasy and four hot and bored housewives. The themes of the script are apparent, but not overbearing. This is one of those great new short pieces that will meet an audience member wherever they enter. Here for environmental and social feedback? Gotcha covered. Would you rather turn off your brain for an hour and a half and enjoy five strange females? No problem.

When the show debuted three years ago, The New York Times rightly called the play an amalgam of “ancient myth, lesbian pulp, eco-thriller, and Real Housewives.” Who knew that four such disparate genres could make great theatre? Well, Madeleine George to begin with, and now Hawkins. By bringing the play to Key West, the Red Barn Theater continues its commitment to finding new gems and bringing them to life for a more intimate community. It’s a decision that pays off, positioning the intimate space as a geographically (but not tonally) remote Off-Broadway experience for locals and visitors alike.

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