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Laughter and revelry sounded from the back of a pickup as it pulled into a downtown Casper alley.

“We’re here, we’re queer!”

“It’s gorgeous and beautiful, what a day, clouds in the sky.”

An actor in a gold mask stood in the back of the truck and began to yell toward the sky.

“Dionysus has come!”

Cheers rose from the group of actors around him, and the horn beeped as rehearsal began Aug. 6 for the Theatre of the Poor’s production of “The Bacchae.” The show relates themes of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy to today with a contemporary staging. The Greek god Dionysus has arrived to establish his religion of “ecstatic, subjective self-expression” in his hometown, which rejected the idea he’s a god, director William Conte said.

The play opens Thursday and is free to the public. It begins in front of Metro Coffee, with a procession to the back parking lot.

“The idea is that Dionysus has come to Casper,” Conte said. “We’re trying to make this as contemporary and immediate as we possibly can.”

The theater company’s staging of the play speaks to themes of identity and gender nonconformity.

“And we find that in the play, with the references to Dionysus as a shape-shifter and as ‘a thing of ambiguous gender,’ that the play speaks very loudly to our time in terms of how we’re engaging with the question of identity,” Conte said. “What you have in the play is this conflict between the forces of tradition, order, conventional morality, etc., versus this dynamic new way of living and thinking about the self. And so what Dionysus offers to his followers is the possibility of fashioning themselves, inventing themselves, interpreting their understanding of themselves any way they want to.”

But the play, of course, has a dark side, he said. Euripides’ play was a warning about religious fanaticism in his day, a theme that applies today about the dangers of extremism and intolerance of others’ views, Conte said.

“He is a Greek god, and the gods are notoriously jealous and impatient with people who are not giving them what they want, and that’s usually worship,” he said. “So Dionysus is not here to give people options. You conform or basically die.”

Ancient play, modern take

Dionysus and his followers, who arrived from the mountains into the town of Thebes, hopped out of the truck and began to chant to drumming in the parking lot behind the coffee shop.

Before long, a van pulled into the lot and actor Mary Gray emerged with two guards.

As Pentheus, the King of Thebes, she ranted about the “the city in uproar” and the women who’ve left home to become Bacchae — his followers — and worship Dionysus with drunken dancing and orgies.

“You go into the city and bring me this foreigner, this thing of doubtful gender spraying his sick notions amongst our women, dragging out marriages through the filth,” Gray yelled.

They’d stone him to death, the character said.

“We see some of the parallels in our own time today, where these forces of conservatism and traditionalism versus radical subjectivity are in collision with each other,” said Conte, who plays the prophet Tiresias.

Dionysus later addresses the chorus and audience about Pentheus refusing to cooperate and hear their side.

“The secret of life is balance and tolerance,” he said.

The line is Conte’s favorite in the play, he said.

“And one of the things that the playwright was warning about in his own time was about the dangers of fanaticism and extremism, regardless of which direction it’s coming from,” he said.

The tragedy in the play results from the fault on both sides, Pentheus and Dionysus and his followers, because they refuse to compromise, he said.

Tolerance is something that must be extended to both sides wherever there are polarizing disagreements in society, he said. The play takes no sides, and he hopes it communicates the need to for respect and tolerance toward those with different views.

“And it doesn’t necessarily mean that we accept or agree with each other. But what it does mean is that we’re willing to live with each other, and we’re willing to get along with each other in a way that allows everybody to be free, everybody to do their own thing, and if we disagree, we can still at least live together and respect each other,” he said. “In this play that doesn’t happen. It’s a zero-sum game in which both forces, both sides are determined to destroy each other. And I think that it kind of is what’s looming on the horizon in this country.”

Exploring ideas

Besides descriptions in the script of Dionysus, casting is another way in which the show speaks to themes of identity and gender nonconformity, Conte said. Pentheus is portrayed by a woman, while the character’s mother, Agave, is portrayed by a man. Actors of different genders portray Dionysus and express a continuum between femininity and masculinity in their acting and costumes, he said.

The staging is “looking at the idea of gender-appropriate casting, which is coming up in the theater a lot right now,” he said.

“And part of what we’re exploring here is exploring the idea of gender as one of the many species of performances that we see around us,” Conte said. “It’s pretty much been established in queer theory and in modern performance theory that our gender, our sexuality, even race, ethnicity and religion, these are just identities are all kinds of performances, and we perform ourselves every day. And Dionysus is of course the god of the theater. He’s the god of masquerade and play.

“And so this is a play also about getting the city of Casper to not only to accept his cults,” he continued with a laugh, “but also to accept, in a larger scene, the theater and the energy that the theater releases, which can be scary and potentially destructive.”

The roles give actors challenges, like the layers of performances within Gray’s role as Pentheus.

“So you’re a woman playing a man and then Pentheus himself is kind of a boy king who’s acting much older than he really is,” she said. “And so you have to find a way to find the performance of a man, and then the performance of Pentheus as well, blended into that man.”

Nicholas Johnson said the role of Agave is a out of his comfort zone, and he wants to do it justice and not offend. It’s also a way to stretch as an actor, he said.

Several actors portray Dionysus, donning the gold mask to portray different aspects of the character.

“Dionysus is a shape-shifter, so the idea is that in this gaggle of people, that is the chorus, he could be present amongst any one of them, or he could be embodied though any one of them. We like to keep it a little ambiguous, just like the whole gender role idea,” said Nick McDill, who’s a chorus member and one of the actors who plays Dionysus. “The chorus is referred to as women and we’re dressing effeminately, presenting effeminately but it’s very modern in the ideas of fluidity; we are whatever we are.”

Actors hope audiences enjoy the play and that it will provoke thought and discussions.

“The lesson is not really learned through any of the characters but I think (through) the conversation that’s sparked with the audience, the afterwards of what they just saw and what they witnessed,” Johnson said.

The location adds to show’s urban and contemporary vibe, said Jesse Taylor, who portrays a chorus member and Dionysus.

“I’m really interested in that, because I think that plays into a lot of the social politics that are really prevalent in our culture right now,” Taylor said. “And I think it’s really fun to play into those politics very ambiguously. Because we’re not saying one thing or the other necessarily; we’re just doing it as an expression of identity.”

The Theatre of the Poor creates theater in public spaces with little or no budget and the group uses the resources they have, Conte said. This show makes use of Metro’s back wall with a projection of buildings burning and collapsing in one scene, Conte said.

The center of town and the coffee shop area is the perfect spot for the show, Conte said.

“If Dionysus were to come to Casper to establish his religion,” he said. “It would be here.”

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Star-Tribune reporter Elysia Conner covers arts, culture and the Casper community.

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