A review of DGDG Dance Groups’ “Stronger Than Arms”
“Stronger Than Arms” written/directed and choreographed by Danielle Georgiou (co-written by Justin Locklear) and produced by DGDG Dance Group, is a reinterpretation of the 5th Century BCE Aeschylus play “Seven Against Thebes.” Built around and within the history and myth of ancient Greece, it centers on the civil war in Thebes, where two brothers lead armies to secure the crown. The production runs through October 2nd for live performances at Undermain Theatre (3200 Main St Dallas TX) and streaming through Oct 17th.
It’s exciting to see DGDG Dance Company continue to push the boundaries of theater in Dallas through their live performances and streaming. Their use of multimedia and dance in this production, using two large screens to depict the scenery, tone, and greek choral dancers, are exactly the kind of risks that theater makers need to take to explore the boundaries of the artform. While the plot, characters and themes seemed less than fully fleshed out, the overall experience was emotionally resonant.
The play uses an all female cast (at least in the live performance, men were used in the video projected choral dancers) to explore what was happening “behind the scenes” during the Theban civil war. The centerpieces are Jenny Ledel as a nuanced and extremely compelling Antigone and her sister, the fear stricken Mindamora Rocha as her sister Isemene. Characters added to the play by Ms. Georgiou and Mr. Locklear are a priestess, enchantingly played by Anastasia Munoz, an advisor, Bwalya Chisanga, as Pyrrhos, a stranger, Rebecca McDonald, and the only “live” chorus member, Celeste Perez.
The structure of the play is basically a “one act” with the characters of Ismene, Antigone and the Stranger on stage the entire time. The action on the stage is frenetic throughout, with actors dancing or performing religious rites while video plays on the screens and pre-recorded music comes in and out depending on the tone of the moment. While the pace kept the energy high, it limited the audience’s ability to get to know some of the supporting characters in terms of motivation.
Again, the Dallas theater scene needs more attempts at high energy, dance infused theater that makes use of technology, and I applaud DGDG Dance Group’s production for moving in this direction. While the different parts of the production may not have exactly complemented one another to create a fully coherent narrative, I appreciate the thought and work of the cast and crew, especially the make-up consulting by Ryan Matthieu Smith, the sound design by Donovan Jones, Projection by Taylor Cleveland and Directors of Photography Christian Vasquez and Kyle Montgomery.
This play reminded me of a traditional greek stew called Kokkinisto, the hermeneutics of which (like most slowly cooked dishes and classical works) is up to the chef. While we can agonize or prattel over the exact recipe, the key is in the translation, which is “made red.” In our current epoch, the dogmas surrounding classic greek tragedy often follow a similar heuristic of keeping the general ideas from the author and the text, but adding or subtracting ingredients liberally to meander around the ideas and techniques of the original author.
What the chef’s of this play did well, was to not rely on pretentious greek jargon (feel free to reread the paragraph above to get an example) or tropes, but to try to understand how people would feel if this was happening to them while also utilizing the language and themes of Aeschylus’ original play, with the additional daring twist of changing the “original” ending (which wasn’t actually the original ending in the first place, making this production both new and traditional).
What’s confusing about the play is two things. First, none of the action happens on stage. Everything that is already underway when the play begins is explained to use through the dialogue of the characters on stage, but we don’t “see” any of it. While I understand that this is a nod to traditional greek tragedy, in that nobody gets killed on stage, figuring out both what happened before and what is happening right now is challenging. Second is the difference in tone between the characters. While Jenny Ledel plays an all too human and nuanced Antigone, Mindamora Rocha’s Ismene and Bwalya Chisanga’s Pyrrhos are seemingly both trapped as “characters in a traditional greek tragedy,” meaning they alternate between extremes of fear and grief, without much in between. Anastasia Munoz as the priestess provides a haunting presence, both through her excellent delivery and the fact that she is projected as a vague apparition onto two separate screens. Rebecca McDonald as Xenos (or “the stranger”) is doing something, but I’m not sure what it is or how it fits into the rest of the play. Celeste Perez as the chorus comes on and off stage frequently delivering news of the battle and dancing (again, a nod towards a traditional greek chorus) but while I know Ms. Perez to be adept at clowning, I’m not sure that using her occasionally with this technique was helpful to the show.
Just to be clear, I don’t want to watch Death of a Salesman or another dining room farce.. I don’t need to know who the “bad guy” and the “good guy” are. But I found myself wondering numerous times during this show “why do I care about these characters?”
[Also published via KatyTrailWeekly.com]