Perhaps it takes an Eastern European to bring the Theater of the Absurd into the present; after all, people in that part of the world have seen so much more pointless cruelty up close. Pavel M. Dobrusky appears to be qualified, and the Czech director's new Star Fever at the Denver Center Theatre Company is full of comic inventions and riffs on ludicrous human behavior.
Playwright/designer/director Dobrusky's play, however, is based loosely--very loosely, it turns out--on The Bacchae of Euripides. In that ancient Greek play, the God Bacchus is offended that the king of Thebes and his people no longer pay him homage. So he seduces all the town's women into an ecstatic cult, dri-ving them all mad with religion (sound familiar?). When King Pentheus goes out to look into the matter, the Bacchants--including the King's elderly mother--shred him, and Mom goes home with her son's head on a pike. When she comes out of the trance, well, she realizes just what she has done.
The ancient Greeks lived in a difficult world--full of absurd tragedy and suffering. So the gods they invented were mean as hell, egomaniacal, unpredictable and responsible for every lousy thing that happened. You spent your time trying to appease them so they wouldn't destroy you in some indescribably horrible way. Well, we still live in a difficult world, Dobrusky tells us in his modern retake, and the gods we invent for ourselves now are movie and rock stars, TV personalities, sports heroes and other celebrities who are supposed to act as saviors and prophets. Contemporary idolatry doesn't even have the grace of serious ceremony; it's just all mindless adoration.
Dobrusky's contemporary Bacchus is no god, but a charming and hilarious trickster named (a little too obviously) Dios. The free-form construction of the play finds Dios interacting with the audience like society-mocking Hopi clowns and Robin Williams rolled into one. Actor Tim DeKay is a dazzling comic actor, and the range he displays in the role--moving at a frantic pace from low comedy to high wit, from embarrassingly crude sexual jokes to elaborate, clever tricks--is mind-spinning.
In the first scene, Dios, looking like Charlie Chaplin--part bum, part satyr--applies for a job in a particularly repressive business office. As soon as he gets the job, he starts spreading his own uproarious form of chaos. When he's fired, he shrugs it off and becomes a rock star, seducing women and men into his cult and leading them off to orgiastic bacchanals in a remote area called the Heights.
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His Honor, the Supreme Judge (played with great skill and irony by Bernard K. Addison) plots to destroy him, but Dios has something fairly bizarre and excruciating in store for the judge. First, though, he schemes to humiliate His Honor, telling him he can't get to the Heights unless he disguises himself as a woman. One of the funniest--and most painful--moments of the evening arrives when His Honor dances with Dios in pink chiffon and feathers.
It's at this point that we begin to see another layer of Dios's character; like the Greek god Dionysus, there's a menacing and cruel streak beneath the surface that ultimately defines him. Dios is no god, just a star--and unlike the ancient gods, when modern stars fall, others rise instantly to take their places. In Dobrusky's treatment, the savage end of The Bacchae takes on the absurd, tawdry glamour of a television variety show.
Jamie Horton as Satyr Peppi creates a series of different personalities in one character with zealous energy and unabashed style. Peppi is both a diffident servant to the Judge and a perfect parody of a talk-show host (though all of Dobrusky's characters are parodies to begin with). Kathleen M. Brady gives yet another masterful comic performance as His Honor's mad mother. Luan Schooler makes a fiercely strident preacher/publicist. And Archie Smith's comic fool touchingly delivers us into tragedy.
In the end, Dobrusky's reinterpretation of Euripides has an integrity of its own. Part of the time it seems a tad sophomoric, as if the playwright is trying to reduce Euripides's brilliance into self-absorbed rantings about the decadence of Western society. But that feeling fades as the various elements fall into place. Dobrusky has made something fine and new, something as caustic as Drano yet exciting, transitory and perceptive. The Theater of the Absurd is not dead, but it is evolving.