Before you enter the Rude Mechs' “reconstruction” of the environmental theater landmark Dionysus in 69, the theater will ask you to sign a very scary paper. You waive your right to sue—the audience sits on ceiling-high wooden towers—but the small print may be waiving your right to be uptight. Because if you betray even the slightest rhythm, if the chiming cymbals and pulsating drum gets your head bobbing even the tiniest bit, the cast will draw you into its orgiastic embrace. Should you be the type to get annoyed at a bit of under-the-shirt action during a group-grope and/or bacchic ritual, then you probably oughtn't see the show. (Full disclosure: I radiated Midwestern nervousness at such an incredible frequency, I went unmolested. A fact I now regret.)
If you are or have ever been a theater student, you know about Richard Schechner and the Performance Group's legendary production. In 1968 it maxed out the taboo-meter, sending writhing naked actors through a version of The Bacchae inspired by New Guinean birth ritual, while playfully undercutting theatrical norms by having performers enact both themselves and their Euripidean roles. It sounded a metaphorical and literal gong for environmental theater and (many assumed) a death knell for the proscenium. Now Austin's world-class physical theater company the Rude Mechs offers what it calls a “karaoke” version, having studied Brian DePalma's documentary film. But there's nothing ironic or piss-taking here—Schechner is still involved, greeting audiences with a satyr's delight, even giving the company notes.
The Rudes are interested in group creative dynamics; their last touring show, the superb The Method Gun, both mocked and celebrated acting collectives. Here they turn to the urtext for group work, performing it with apparently total fidelity. Chanting, yoga poses, droop-in-your-soup mustaches—it's what you always knew the '60s were really like. The concentric structure has gained still another layer, so that now, for instance, Thomas Graves plays his role as Thomas Graves/William Finley/Dionysus. He snatches women off platforms, whirls them into the dance and beams happily at his prey, Josh Meyer/Bill Shephard/Pentheus, who mournfully tries to corral the blissed-out gang before his eventual bloody comeuppance. For those unfamiliar with the Performance Group's original, the erotic shock will catch you unawares.
For those who have seen the documentary, so safely distanced by its archival black-and-white, seeing Dionysus in 69 is a chance to explode reverence with actual, delightful experience. The original gets its due, but in the hands of the Rudes it also becomes endearing and doggedly sweet. In an incorporated “game,” the superslim Josh/Pentheus must choose which cast member has written a certain insult about him. The worst this group of darlings can muster? “You are an actual Julie Taymor puppet.” —Helen Shaw
By the Rude Mechs. From an original film by Brian DePalma of Richard Schechner's production of a script by Euripides. Dirs. Shawn Sides and Madge Darlington. With ensemble cast. 1hr 40mins. No intermission.