The mad, musical theater spectacle of ‘The Bacchae’

The mad, musical theater spectacle of ‘The Bacchae’

April 12, 2019

Thebes has been overrun. Their king, Pentheus, has defied Dionysus, mocking his deity and sacred rites. As his revenge, Dionysus drives the city-state mad.

The ancient Greek play by Euripides, “The Bacchae,” has been revived, retranslated and restaged for a contemporary audience. There are musical numbers, a plethora of red plastic balls, and an incredible underscoring drum performance.

“The Bacchae” is an experience that does not bore—the songs sprinkled throughout make sure of that, the musical numbers a daring revision of the greek chorus of classical drama. Beyond that, it’s evident that a lot of time and expertise went into engineering this performance.

From the costume design—Dionysus’ (Rose Archer ’20 and Dan Souza ’19) shimmering skirts and the Theban guards’ Soviet-inspired wardrobe—to the stage’s architecture—a gray stone wall with three empty doorways that curves toward you like a möbius strip—the entire show feels cohesive and effectively orchestrated.  

Dionysus is played by two actors, Archer and Souza, who frolic around the stage, trading off lines and climbing up onto the wall as they speak to their followers, the Bacchae, a chorus of obedient revelers wearing simple tunics and flowery coronets.

Dionysus is out to prove his godhood. We’re told the story of his origins: his mother Semele was murdered by jealous Hera while she was pregnant, the baby saved by Zeus who sews him up into his thigh. But his mortal family, grandfather Kadmos (Alex Jacobs [THA]), aunt Agave (Rachel Greene ’20), and nephew Pentheus (Ben Astrachan ’19), find it blasphemous. “I’ll prove to him and all of Thebes that I am a god,” Dionysus proclaims.  

The god of wine and revelry, made mortal, arrives in the city-state with his entourage, but the king Pentheus, wary of the mad merrymaking, soon throws him in prison. “This bacchic disease is spreading like wildfire,” Pentheus says.

Astrachan’s Pentheus is an arrogant dictator. He wears a leather jacket and is flanked by two soldiers in Soviet-era military garb. Like in many classical tragedies, it’s his hubris that ultimately leads to a grisly downfall as Dionysus’s wreaks his revenge.

It’s Pentheus’ inept attempt to save his city that dooms it, though not all are as afraid of the bacchic menace. Kadmos, Dionysus’ and Pentheus’s mortal grandfather, and Tiresias (Norma Stobbe ’20) are ready to embrace the revels. Stobbe’s Tiresias, wearing sunglasses and wreathed in a crimson crown, staggers about the stage in front of Pentheus, drunkenly attempting to persuade him to embrace Dionysian living. It doesn’t work, and we never see Tiresias again.

In its execution, the play is successful. Director (and theater department chair) Prof. Dmitry Troyanovsky (THA) makes dynamic use of the stage. The actors play their parts with gusto—pulling off musical numbers that could have seemed jarring or tacky. Archer and Souza play Dionysus like two snakes that have been stepped on, circling their prey. It is well-paced, almost never dragging through its hour-and-change running time. It takes risks, too, that pay off: In particular, there’s a giant glass cube full of red balls that drops during the second half, a bold artistic device that conveys the grotesque violence that occurs between a band of Theban women led by Agave and her son, as well as the frenzied revelry that consumes the city entirely.

But the last 10 minutes are lacking. It’s difficult to empathize with Agave and Kadmos over the death of Pentheus, when enough time hasn’t been spent establishing their characters. The ending feels unearned. It lacks the dramatic weight it’s supposed to—which I can only attribute to the fact that we don’t care or know enough to feel sorry with Agave about her son. Her son, a fascist misogynist, doesn’t inspire much pity either, even though he gets torn to pieces. And it doesn’t seem right to root for Dionysus, who is rather unsympathetic in what he accomplishes. The events happen, and then it ends. There’s no catharsis, only an admonishment from the entire production to “take this story today.”

What’s lacking, however, isn’t noticeable in the moment: You’re too enchanted by the bacchic revelers rollicking around in their red balls, the yellowish smokescreen enveloping the stage, Dionysus eating grapes with a devilish grin, fruit juice dripping from Souza’s mouth and the entire mad spectacle inflamed by an intensifying drum beat.

The spectacle might be enough. The questions can be asked later.  

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