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PerformanceStage ReviewIn 'Hurricane Diane,' it's Bacchae to our wild roots,...

In ‘Hurricane Diane,’ it’s Bacchae to our wild roots, eco-rave included

Madeline George's suburban New Jersey take on Euripides' classic gets earthy at Aurora Theatre

In 1955, Hurricane Diane swept up the Eastern seaboard causing an estimated one billion dollars in damage—the first Atlantic Hurricane to do so, though certainly not the last. In playwright Madeline George’s “Hurricane Diane” (through July 16 at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley), a similar storm is creeping up on an unassuming suburban neighborhood in Monmouth County, New Jersey. It’s not just the approaching weather that upends the pleasant blandness of four neighboring households, but an entity far more unexpected.

Enter Diane—the pseudonomynous identity of Dionysus come back to Earth in the form of a permaculture-loving landscape gardener—who promises to restore this manicured corner of New Jersey to “the lush primeval forest” it once was. All that stands in her way are the more conventional landscaping opinions of her chosen four housewives, and in order to get into their plants, Diane must also get into their pants. It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as The Bacchae, by Euripides, the play upon which Hurricane Diane is extremely loosely based.

In Aurora’s production—directed by Jennifer King—Diane is played by Stacy Ross, a natural fit for a role filled with rock star appeal. She arrives onstage with a cinematic flourish, and lays out her entire plan in the first monologue. God needs to be worshiped. Humankind needs to reckon with the mess it’s made of the world. It’s time to make a deal. If Diane can bring her chosen four under her spell as a cult of Maenads, they can help to restore balance between the modern and the natural worlds. Ross delivers all of this with a wry, almost apologetic air. Dionysus might be the rock star of gods, but Ross’ Diane is less flashy stadium metal and more earnest jam band, right down to the brown canvas overalls.

Stacy Ross in Madeleine George’s ‘Hurricane Diane.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Right out of the gate, the modern world receives Diane’s overtures with tight-lipped skepticism and a demand for a “wrought-iron accent bench” for the proposed garden makeover. This is Carol, played to the neurotic hilt by Rebecca Schweitzer, a perfect foil for Ross’ crunchy, lo-fi vibe. Crisp to the point of fragmenting into shards, Carol commands her suburban kitchen with brisk and lonely efficiency. She recoils visibly when Diane extols the virtues of “beneficial insects” and “globular fruits” and shoos her out the door like an unwelcome stray. We’ve all known an unreasonably unyielding Carol in our lives, and Schweitzer embodies her to a tee.

Equally formidable, though far more receptive to Diane’s overtures, is Carol’s neighbor Renee, played by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong. As Renee, Mbele-Mbong exudes the hard-won confidence of a woman whose non-conformist credentials have helped catapult her to the top tier of an exceedingly conformist career. However the more she reminisces about her unconventional past the more it becomes apparent that within Renee there are two wolves—and one of those wolves is extremely ready to let loose when Diane comes to call.

What feels somewhat lacking in Ross and Mbele-Mbong’s interpretation of this exchange is heat. The script makes their intentions clear, but their connection onstage feels entirely cerebral in nature, rather than an embodied one. Still, Mbele-Mbong makes the most of lines like “I am the queen of making the uncontrollable adorable,” reveling in Renee’s outrage and competence both.

Luisa Sermol, Gianna DiGregorio Rivera, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, and Rebecca Schweitzer in ‘Hurricane Diane.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

One the other end of the archetype spectrum, Gianna DiGregorio Rivera as Beth is wide-eyed and almost irritatingly waiflike. But of the four she’s the first to fall wholly and enthusiastically for Diane’s laidback charms, and when she transforms into her Maenad persona she is by far the most uninhibited and purely sensual of the bunch. Meanwhile Luisa Sermol, as Pam, anchors the play firmly in New Jersey, with an impeccable accent and layers of statement jewelry and animal prints, courtesy of costume designer Brooke Jennings. Watching Sermol’s Pam embrace her wild side is both hilarious and unexpectedly touching, so completely does she surrender her character’s quasi-survivalist mentality up for one far more interconnected, expansive, and animalian. 

It’s such a treat to watch George’s eco-fantasy unfold in a space as intimate as Aurora’s, but despite the proximity of the action it does feel at times that this hurricane lacks some bluster. The overall pacing of the production feels less dynamic than it could, and on opening night there were some dropped cues and lines. King has Ross play up the mellow aging hippie aspects of her character so thoroughly, that her ambitions to tear down hundreds of years of human “progress” from New Jersey feel delusional from the moment she utters them. This makes what could have been a truly terrifying showdown between Diane and her lone holdout an underwhelming clash, despite the able assistance of stormy lighting and sound effects from Kurt Landisman and Lana Palmer. 

Overall though, “Hurricane Diane” well worth experiencing in person if only for the sheer joy of watching a trio of Maenads tear it up eco-rave style (choreography by Natalie Greene) and Stacy Ross make meaningful eye contact with almost every single audience member at least once. George is a master of both laconic understatement and hyper-aware specificity, and her not-so-subtle critique of late-stage capitalism will either have you tearing our your lawn or running for the nearest Panera.

Either way, you might want to keep your eye on the weather. You never know when—or where—the next hurricane will hit.

HURRICANE DIANE runs through July 16 at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Tickets and more info here.

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