Experimental theater being what it is, any document of this offbeat genre is sure to divide audiences. As such, something like Dionysus in ’69 can’t be appraised in only one way. Those with adventurous spirits and an eagerness to see postmodern rethinks of longstanding storytelling conventions will be able to appreciate Dionysus in ’69 as a form of artistic exploration. Concurrently, those who enjoy understanding what the hell they’re watching will lose patience quickly. Even those who seek out Dionysus in ’69 because of Brian De Palma’s involvement are likely to be confounded. The picture has a couple of significant connections to the director’s later work, but he didn’t conceive or singlehandedly helm the piece, at the execution is avant-garde in the extreme.
Shot in 1968, while De Palma was a film student at NYU, the film captures a presentation by experimental-theater ensemble the Performance Group. Based on the ancient Euripides play, Dionysus in ’69 ostensibly tells the story of a conflict between gods, and layered upon the original text is a postmodern freakout written by William Arrowsmith. Actors strip down to jockstraps (or less) while creating sexualized tableaux onstage, up to and including a pair of lengthy and semi-explicit orgy scenes. In some scgments, actor William Finley (who plays both Dionysus and the role of actor William Finley) speaks in modern language, while his costar, Will Shepherd (who plays both Pentheus and the role of actor Will Shepherd), communicates largely in stilted "classical" vernacular. (FYI, Finley later starred in De Palma’s 1976 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise.) The live audience beholding the filmed performance of Dionysus in’69 becomes involved in the show, as well. Seated on the floor, in chairs, and on scaffolds surrounding the intimate performance space, audience members participate in dance scenes and receive dialogue and physical contact from the actors. All of this serves the familiar experimental-theater concept of transforming a play into an active experience rather than a passive one.
De Palma, who shares an “a film by” credit with fellow NYU students Bruce Joel Rubin (later on Oscar winner for writing the 1990 hit Ghost) and Robert Fiore, employs one of his favorite cinematic devices, split-screen photography. Therefore, the entire 85-minute film comprises two angles of grungy-looking black-and-white images projected side-by-side. As with everything else about Dionysus in ’69, the split-screen effect is as headache-inducing as it is mind-expanding. Incidentally, Dionysus in ’69 received an X-rating during its original release, though its edgiest elements are full-frontal nudity, rough language, and simulated sex.
Dionysus in ’69: FUNKY