Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Thus Spoke… James & Heidi

Based on our class discussions, it’s safe to say that the play Dionysus in Stony Mountain by Steven Ratzlaff wasn’t for everyone. But what is?

Some thought it was too serious while others said it was too long and threw too much information at them (especially during the first act).

I definitely agree that it’s not the kind of play where you can sit back and let it wash over you-- not if you want to get something out of the experience. In fact, I’ve never before attended a play that required more (internal) audience participation. When I walked out of the Rachel Brown Theatre I was exhausted—it felt as though my brain had been doing pushups for two hours. And it was a great feeling.

Most people I spoke to preferred the second act of the two-act play, but it was the first that won me over.

Act two may have been more of a tearjerker, but the idea of fearing mediocrity that James and Heidi Prober (played by Sarah Constible) touched on in the first act is what left me in an emotional puddle. There was something so  heartbreaking about that… something so vulnerable… because I agree that the so-called madness James was experiencing was more akin to clarity. I saw his “madness” as being more in touch with reality, and, given his situation, it brought on the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability and sadness.

Bill Kerr, the director of the play, states the following in the program:

Dionysus is exactly the kind of play that excited me about the potential of theatre to engage audiences at a highly complex level.”

I couldn’t agree more. But the operative word here is potential—you can’t force people to pay attention or think critically (in a theatre setting or anywhere else, for that matter). That being said, I liked the fact that although the play wasn’t for everyone, like it or not, we were all “held captive” and made to listen to the ideas of Nietzsche and Ratzlaff for two hours. Was I able to absorb everything or catch all of the references? Of course not. But the scope of the content was exciting.

The director goes on to say:

“It grapples with society and its institutions by both applying and interrogating the thoughts of Nietzsche with remarkable clarity while, at the same time, engaging us on the directly political level of the here and now, asking most urgently why our society, particularly as played out in the prison, functions as it does whatever our intents.”

Throughout the first act I was scribbling down notes as fast as I could, but not surprisingly, I couldn’t move my pen fast enough to keep up with what James Hiebert (played by Ross McMillan) was saying.

The moment I finished writing something down, another noteworthy idea would spring from his mouth. Here are bits and pieces of the things James said that grabbed my attention:

- Residential schools -- opposite of assimilation

- Morality of slaves --- slave morality enforced by the state

- Self-evident and natural values—what is the source of their morality?

- Artificial life support-- makes people needier

- Purity of intention (until the money runs out) and cancer of compassion

- Would you punish those not responsible for their behaviour? (“on the road with broken wheels”)

My mind is still churning over what James had to say, which is why, contrary to what some of my classmates had to say, I don’t think the play needed more action—if you managed to keep up with James (which was difficult to say the least), all of the action took place in your head. Mental sword fight anyone? En guarde.

I’ll admit I had an advantage going into Dionysus in Stony Mountain because I’ve taken a couple of philosophy classes. 

I learned about Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Carl Sagan, David Hume, Plato and Aristotle. It was certainly not uncommon to hear names such as Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky and, yes, even Friedrich Nietzsche, pop up in conversation.

So maybe that’s part of the reason why this quote from Ratzlaff that appears on Theatre Projects Manitoba’s website caught my eye:

“Nietzsche is a philosopher who grabs you by the throat and compels you to look at things from unaccustomed angles and in strange light.”

Sounds an awful lot like something journalists—and communicators in general—can learn from, doesn’t it?


  1. Hey Alana,
    I always say not to be afraid to make the audience do some work--but it is true that the audience is not always in the mood to work. But we definitely need this kind of play in the world.

  2. "like it or not, we were all “held captive” and made to listen to the ideas of Nietzsche and Ratzlaff for two hours."

    You're right. I experienced Stockholm Syndrome. Sounds as if you might have, too.