There’s nothing like a Greek tragedy to go from zero to 100 in just over an hour. In this case, we go from the broodings of a slighted god to a mother wielding her own son’s head on a pike. In An Eye for an Eye, director Mediombo Singo Fofana has staged a strong rendition of The Bacchae that largely reproduces its source text faithfully, with a few Shakespearian additions designed to emphasize the through line of tragedy across time as well as the moral ambiguity of Euripedes’ classic.
The plot remains unchanged: Dionysus (Alex Diaz-Ferguson), son of Zeus and mortal Thebian princess Semele, returns to the city of his conception upon hearing rumors that his aunts are spreading blasphemy about him. His goal? To prove and avenge himself by making maenads of the city’s women–possessing them and leading them in crazed religious rites. Things spin out of control when Pentheus (Sid Garg), the young king of Thebes, rejects Dionysus and plans to have him stoned to death. Dionysus, however, uses his godly powers to escape, and ultimately tricks Pentheus into exposing himself to the maenads, who tear him to pieces, led by Pentheus’s mother Agave (Declan Cashman). She only realizes what she has done upon presenting the head to her father, Cadmus (George Kassouf), and the bacchanal spell wears off.
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It’s a turbulent play full of high-strung emotions and violence, but until the very end, most of the action takes place off-stage and is relayed by messengers. That puts a lot of pressure on performers. Fortunately, Fofana can rely on his cast. Garg simmers with lunatic rage as the petulant king whose ego obscures the danger he steps into. Kassouf is a quiet Cadmus, genuinely concerned for his successor-grandson. Sally Roffman’s physical theater background shows as the First Messenger, tasked with relaying the first description of maenad rites to Pentheus. Cashman shines in her final, devastating scene, covered in blood.
An Eye for An Eye at Capital Fringe Festival closes July 27, 2019. Details and tickets
A midpoint scene featuring Connie Benesh, Teko Campbell, and Amelia Schuster encircling a conflicted Pentheus casts the women in a siren-like light. These actors are not playing maenads, so their teasing and prodding that ultimately lead to the king’s demise calls into question the Thebian women’s agency. To what extent are they possessed by Dionysus, as opposed to acting of their own accord? The whole play is a quandary of agency, ethics, and legitimate authority. Pentheus is no hero in his arrogance, but his brutal punishment and the rampant destruction wrought by the maenads casts Dionysus in a nasty light as well.
The strengths of this production lie in how the simple direction and staging make space for unflinching performances of a moving, vexing play. The Shakesperian twists (the specifics of which Fofana prefers to keep a surprise) don’t add so much as they distract from its emotional core, but they do highlight how evergreen classical tragedies have felt across time and geography. This one, in a Methodist church basement in southwest DC, resonates still.
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