South Philly actors star in new play bridging Greek tragedy with suburban life

The world premiere of “Dionysus Was Such A Nice Man” by Kate Tarker was written exclusively for the Wilma HotHouse company.

South Philly resident Matteo Scammell with Taysha Marie Canales in the Wilma HotHouse company’s production of a new play, “Dionysus Was Such A Nice Man,” by Kate Tarker. (Photo special to SPR)

Some Greek tragedies tell stories of wars, others of plagues.

The Wilma Theater, though, is depicting another kind of lasting calamity – middle-class suburban life.

In a world premiere written exclusively for the Wilma HotHouse company, “Dionysus Was Such A Nice Man” by Kate Tarker elevates torments of a modern-day average family using motifs of ancient Greek theater.

Surrounding a malcontent ménage of shepherds living in the suburbs of Corinth, the two-act play derives from the myth of a tragic Greek hero named Oedipus who fortuitously fulfilled a prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother.

Commissioned over the last two years for HotHouse, “an incubator for artistic investigation and experimentation,” the new production, which features a few South Philadelphians and runs through May 12, follows the family as they learn their adopted son Oedipus has ascended the throne of Thebes.

Weaving derisive comedy with Lecoq-style clowning theater, the play creates a peculiar lens of dark humor to view personal trauma – a reinvention of performance that aligns with the company’s mission using a newfangled approach.

South Philly resident Keith Conallen in the Wilma HotHouse company’s production of a new play, “Dionysus Was Such A Nice Man,” by Kate Tarker. (Photo special to SPR)

“I think what separates these from previous productions is a part of what the Wilma is always setting out to do – what the Wilma Hothouse is always setting out to do – which is to broaden the spectrum of what the actor and what theater is capable of,” said Hawthrone resident Matteo Scammell, who plays the Messenger. “I think that part of the HotHouse goal is to allow the actor to be the author of the performance.”

The Wilma coupled Tarker, a Philadelphia native and graduate of the Yale School of Drama, with Tony Award-winning French director and actor Dominique Serrand, who was the artistic director and one of the co-founders of the world-renowned physical comedy Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For this particular production, clowning may seem like an unconventional techiqnue to feature, considering a majority of the play is comprised of themes such as incest, rape and alcholism.

But, the cast says, perhaps the story suggests humor as a coping mechanism, alluding to a common proverb – if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

“I think there’s the potential for a better way to talk about trauma and a better way to help others deal with it,” said Marconi Plaza-area native Keith J. Conallen, who plays Oedipus. “I think, this might bring into the conversation, the public conversation.”

On the other hand, maybe the play evokes a feeling of one’s attempt to gain command over the consequences of trauma.

Humor acts not only as a way to cope but a way to control despair.

“It might be taking the epic tragic story and grabbing it by the hair and yanking it down to the ground,” Conallen said. “And looking at in a way that’s like, ‘Look at this messed-up stuff…’ putting that into a context that we understand in a more contemporary realistic way and looking at both the horror and hilarity of that. So, I think they’re sort of meeting each other halfway.”

Aside from trauma, the play reveals that such coping often lies in enduring a dissatisfying life of unreached dreams.  

The family, composed of daughter Alcinoe, played by Taysha Marie Canales, mother Merope, played by Melanye Finister, and father Polybus, played by Luverne Seifert, each grapple in the shadows of their untapped aspirations.

As one line of the show unveils, “…we carry with us infinite possibilities.”

But, what are we left with when nothing comes of them?

South Philly resident Ross Beschler in the Wilma HotHouse company’s production of a new play, “Dionysus Was Such A Nice Man,” by Kate Tarker. (Photo special to SPR)

“It’s really interesting to me – the idea of having a fate or destiny that either is sort of fulfilled or not fulfilled,” said South Street Headhouse Square District resident Ross Beschler, who plays Jaimie, an idiosyncratic hairdresser. “And, you just gotta keep living your life in whatever the wreckage of that is. I feel like that’s how life works, and I’m really interested in the story and in my life. So, I feel like that’s really squarely where this play sits, and I love that.”

Along with failure, the cast notes another theme that resonates throughout the show – this idea that both the lightness and the darkness often co-exist.

Among references to gods and godesses interspersed throughout the show, one is the title name of Dionysus – the god of some immoral things, like wine consumption.

However, as the title of the play suggests, he was such a nice man.

“It’s two things at once,” Scammell said.  “It really holds two opposing truths at the same time, which, I think, is just difficult and, I think, it’s something that is happening in the world. Good and bad are things that exist at the same time and that is part of what we need to do as people in order to maybe get to the next step. I think that could be true for the playwright. I know I see that reflected in my own life, and that is something that, I think, is at the heart of what the art is driving at and is what I can maybe expect people to take away with.”

To learn more about the play, visit: 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano