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RED BANK: ‘HURRICANE’ WATCH AT TWO RIVER

hurricane-diane-press-photo-1-500x333-3264513Mia Barron as Sandy in ‘Hurricane Diane’ by Two River Theater playwright-in-residence Madeleine George (below).

madeleine-george-6777126To get right to the sell point, it’s a play that’s set in Red Bank — maybe not that real-world Call In the Authorities/ Retail Churn Red Bank we know so well from redbankgreen, but a representation of coastal suburban living that manages to capture a distinctly Monmouth County set of mind.

It’s there in a cozy cul-de-sac neighborhood that a quartet of local women find themselves drawn to a strange visitor who blows into town like a game-changing superstorm — a “lesbian separatist permaculture gardener from Vermont” who stands out from the pack of lesbian separatist permaculture gardeners, in that she is in fact the Greek god Dionysus, come to enact a new agenda “in the dying days of the American empire, as the planet warms and the oceans rise.”

Going up in previews beginning Saturday, Hurricane Diane marks the first of several world-premiere productions from Two River Theater here in 2017. A “wild comedy” that’s somehow both inspired by classical Greek drama and ripped screaming from the most apocalyptic of today’s headlines, the new play also represents the first official collaboration between Two River Theater Company and its recently named Playwright In Residence, Madeleine George.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist for The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence — and an acclaimed author of young adult novels — the Brooklyn based writer-educator returns to Red Bank for her first TRTC project since 2011’s Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England; a lumbering title for a playful “academic sex comedy” that stood as one of the first original shows to be developed under the stewardship of Two River artistic director John Dias.

That prior experience on the banks of the Navesink impressed George, who found the local audience “curious, adventurous, interested in talking back, hungry for interaction — that’s like catnip to a playwright!”

When the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced grant funding for 20 new arts residency programs around the United States, “it was no accident” that both Dias and George filed the necessary paperwork to bring the playwright aboard for a three-year affiliation in Red Bank. As Playwright In Residence, George will be “doing work with their educational programs, participating in various other Two River Theater events, and looking to develop another play after this one…maybe for a couple of seasons from now, since I don’t work all that fast!”

The playwright’s explorations of the greater Red Bank area — and the lingering legacy of a hurricane named Sandy — fostered thoughts of comfortable suburban lifestyles played out on the frontlines of potentially catastrophic climate change. The similarly lingering impact of the ancient playwright Euripides’ The Bacchae sparked an idea to match this peculiarly 21st century scenario to the figure of Dionysus (Bacchus, if you’re Roman) — the god of, among other things, wine, grapes, theater(!), fertility, religious fervor, ritual madness, and did we mention wine?

In the production under the direction of two time Obie winner and Tony nominee (for Violet) Leigh Silverman, Dionysus/Diane is personified by Becca Blackwell, a trans actor whose formidable list of awards and credits includes affiliations with some of NYC’s most celebrated experimental theater and performance groups. The circus veteran who prefers to be referenced with the gender pronoun “they” is also the author of an autobiographical solo show with the engaging title of They, Themself and Schmerm — and here in their Two River debut, the resolutely “ambiguous” Brooklynite gets to play a gardening god who transforms the yards of the Red Bank locals into “a wild wonderland of paw-paw trees and chokeberry bushes,” as she lures the women into “her ultimate plan: to stage a bacchanal in her forest garden, and usher in a new era of Dionysian worship.”

According to the playwright, the irrepressible ancient cult-figure god was a natural go-to character for a story about “unleashing what’s under the conscious mind.” Asked why her Dionysus has returned to Earth as a gardener — and not, say, a party planner or boxed-wine distributor — George observes that the act of gardening is “a humbling hobby; one where you’re in control and yet not. You have to work with what you have, which to me is a good metaphor at this turning moment in human history.”

In the play that also offers a Sunday matinee preview on January 15, Blackwell joins a professional cast that boasts a couple of returning Two River players (Nikiya Mathis, Danielle Skraastad), as well as stage-TV performer Mia Barron and actress-playwright Kate Wetherhead, as the women of the cul-de-sac. The additional presence of Obie winning choreographer Sonya Tayeh (a double Emmy nominee for So You Think You Can Dance) and the folk-music duo The Bengsons (also veterans of So You Think…) hints at an extra dimension to the production that George says “has a lot of moving parts…and it’s a comedy; there’s jokes in it!”

Hurricane Diane continues in previews with a mix of evening and matinee performances through January 26, opening on Friday, January 27 and maintaining its world premiere engagement through Sunday, February 12. Take it here for tickets ($20 – $70, with discounts available for groups, seniors, and U.S. military personnel, their families, and veterans) or call (732)345-1400 to reserve.

Remember: Nothing makes a Red Bank friend happier than to hear "I saw you on Red Bank Green!"
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