by Carol Rocamora
It’s a challenge to write an apocalyptic comedy about the end of the world, isn’t it? That makes Madeleine George’s new play all the more impressive an achievement.
A lively screwball comedy with a dead-serious theme, Hurricane Diane is loosely based on The Bacchae, with a number of twists. In George’s fantastical 21st century version of Euripides’s play, set in – of all places – New Jersey, the desperate housewives of Monmouth County are visited by Diane (Dionysus) disguised a so-called ecologically-driven landscaper, who has come to save them from impending environmental doom. Diane seeks to seduce them, one by one, as a way of converting them to her vision of a planet in peril.
What makes this play such a wild ride is the ingenious way in which the play combines the themes of millennial materialism, climate change, gardening and Greek tragedy. Diane, as it happens, is a transgender landscaper – outlandishly dressed (by costumer Kaye Voyce) in a kind of Greek toga combined with heavy gardening boots. As wonderfully played by Becca Blackwell (a self-proclaimed “fluid-gendered” actor), Diane takes the audience into her confidence in her opening monologue. “The gods don’t die,” she alerts us, “we just change form.” So Diane sets out to convert “the girls of the cul-de-sac” (as they call themselves), promoting milk vetch, pawpaw and other ecologically correct features for their gardens.
On Rachel Hauck’s wonderful set – designed to represent the housewives’s identical kitchens – we meet Diane’s targets, each a satirical portrait of a contemporary type. There’s Carol (Mia Barron), an executive in a pharmaceutical company. In her Ann-Taylor-style ensemble, she’s sensible, grounded, and knows what she wants in her garden – namely a wrought-iron bench (Diane doesn’t “do” benches). There’s Renee (Michelle Beck), the first woman of color to hold the position of editor in a shelter magazine. There’s Pam (a hilarious Danielle Skraastad), an Italian-American who only wears animal print dresses. And there’s Beth (Kate Wetherhead), whose husband has left her and who recently hurt herself while meditating. Though she may be wimpy, Pam insists that Beth is a “wolf in spinning class.”
Diane has to work fast – a storm is rising. While the wind howls, she seduces them one by one, and the play accelerates into a bacchanalian frenzy, directed with verve by Leigh Silverman. But Carol, the last of the four, proves to be Diane’s match in determination. “If I don’t get what I want, there is no future!” (In other words, Carol really wants that wrought iron bench, and is willing to weather the storm to get it.)
Hurricane Diane turns out to be a serious satire on the intransigent contemporary mindset of individualism and consumerism – one that resists the “green way” and refuses to see the planet in peril. Madeleine George joins the ranks of other playwrights who are trying to warn us – like Caryl Churchill, whose play Escaped Alone (2016) also features four oblivious women in a garden drinking tea (in Hurricane Diane they drink zinfandel), determined not to face the dark implications of the future.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Hurricane Diane, by Madeleine George, directed by Leigh Silverman, is a co-production between NYTW and WP Theater, currently at the New York Theatre Workshop on East 4th Street until March 24