What would a religion which celebrated lust, music, dancing, and the drinking of wine be like? Hah! Need I even ask! The party would last until we were asked to leave the Eurozone, I suppose. Still – it would be hard to go.
We watch Euripides’ 2400-year-old The Bacchae with modern eyes and when we find ourselves in a world where the attractive young followers of Dionysus, ecstatic with joy and limber with dance, are the targets of the humorless, unimaginative King Pentheus (Elliot Kashner), we know where our allegiances are. We think.
But there is a story behind all this – most of which was known to Euripides’ audience, and the rest of which he tells in straightforward monologues. Dionysus is the product of the love between a mortal woman, Semele, and Zeus, the god of gods. When Semele comes home pregnant with Dionysus, her father, the Theban King Cadmus (Theodore Snead) and her sisters are a little skeptical about her story – understandably, one would think. Zeus’ wife Hera knows what is going on, though, and in response she tricks Semele into asking Zeus to show himself in immortal form. Zeus (dumbest god ever) does so, and Semele fries instantly. However, the fetal Dionysus is miraculously saved through details too tedious to recount here.
Most of this is not recounted in Euripides’ play, but is available to us through Bullfinch, Edith Hamilton or Wikipedia. The Bacchae is the concluding stroke to the story. Dionysus (Jeremy Pace) has returned to Thebes for vengeance against the house of Cadmus – not so much for their hostility to his forsaken mother as for their failure to worship him as a god. He drives the women of the house of Cadmus – Semele’s sisters – insane, and they go out to the hills and live like animals. He initiates his ecstatic religion and we see his worshippers, shivering in lust and joy. Cadmus himself becomes a follower of Dionysus, but his grandson, Pentheus, the new ruler of Thebes, does not, and in fact threatens imprisonment to anyone in Dionysus’ church. His minions haul in Dionysus himself, but Dionysus, who like Mandrake the Magician has the power to cloud men’s minds, escapes. Thereafter, Dionysus, falsely promising to help Pentheus resolve the strife between the parties without bloodshed, leads the King to the cavern where the deluded sisters are. There he makes the sisters, who have been given vampire-like powers by their new god, do a very bad and tragic thing. Afterward, Dionysius pronounces his doom on the rest of the house of Cadmus, including the old man, whose conversion has come too late.
Thus the first thing The Bacchae presents us with is the immense moral and cultural divide between the ancient Greek stage and modern audiences. Euripides places most of the significant action offstage and has it recounted to us through two well-delivered monologues – one by Frank Britton as a herdsman who witnessed the sisters tear apart a herd of cattle and one by Jim Jorgensen as a slave who saw them put his master to death. And to modern audiences, who are used to seeing human ingenuity employed to restore balance and some measure of justice, the play is an irredeemable downer; the humans are all completely overmatched by Dionysus, who controls their thoughts, flattens their buildings, and condemns their posterity on whim and caprice. Cadmus, whose only crime was to be skeptical when his daughter claimed to be pregnant by the god of gods (you would be too), loses everything.
The play thus presents formidable problems. I’m delighted to report that WSC Avant Bard, if not overcoming them entirely, distracts us from them enough to make the evening wonderful, even compelling, in spite of the chasm between the ancient Greeks and us. The primary device WSC uses is a selection of absolutely gorgeous original music by Music Director Mariano Vales, played and sung superbly by an amazing chorus (Anna Brungardt, James Finley, Kari Ginsburg, Christin Green, Behzad Habibzai, Heather Haney, Jon Jon Johnson, Jase Parker, JR Russ and Mundy Spears). Part Dionysian High Mass, part narrative device, the music manages to instill the emotional force missing from Euripides’ text.
The performers, most of whom are also high-quality actors, writhe sinuously on the stage as they worship and exposit (Aysha Upchurch does the choreography). There is a scene where Agave (MiRan Powell), the addled mother of Pentheus, comes back to Thebes with a prize; as the chorus slithers around her they seem like smoke on the floor of a forest. Several in the chorus are given solos; all have beautiful voices, and the spike-haired Spears will make your hair stand on end. Watch their faces as Britton and Jorgensen tell their stories to learn how the Dionysians felt about the tragedies befalling Thebes; Brungardt is particularly expressive.
Greek tragedy is difficult and notwithstanding Steven Scott Mazzola’s crisp direction, I’m afraid that the principal characters do not here overcome the difficulties. Pace seems less like a thundering god and more like a sneering teaching assistant forced to discuss theology with undergraduates; on the night I saw the production, Snead was fighting his lines; and none of the principals seem to vary their emotional pitch much (although Kashner shows good comic timing). This is more the fault of the playwright than the actors; and still more the fault of the incredible distance in time between the first production and this one; aside from Euclidian geometry and theater, almost nothing from this long ago is still in use in the modern Western world.
But if you do not wish to go for what is ancient, then go for what is modern, or perhaps timeless – Vales’ terrific score; the beautiful performance of the chorus; or the concept of surrendering to ecstasy for the glory of God.
Permit me one last note for my brothers and sisters in the casting business before I leave off. For heaven’s sake, give Jase Parker a role. I know of no performer in the Washington area who is as underutilized as he is. He is a top-flight singer and dancer, and he proves it again in this production. He is also a fine actor. He should be performing regularly in musical theater and it absolutely buffaloes me that he is not.
The Bacchae is running in repertory with Sam Shepherd’s The Tooth of Crime thru July 1, 2012 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd Arlington, VA.
By Euripides, Translated by Nicholas Rudall
With Original Music by Mariano Vales
Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola
Choreography by Aysha Upchurch
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, without intermission