In a note prefacing his version of The Bacchae — currently playing at the Delacorte Theater in Manhattan’s Central Park — translator Nicholas Rudall says of Euripides’ 2,400-year-old drama: ”The sexuality is ecstatic and secretive, ambiguous and voyeuristic.” It must be CIA-level, encrypted-password-style secretive — because there’s hardly a whiff of sexuality in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s listless production.
Director JoAnne Akalaitis has given the libidinous Dionysus, a.k.a. Bacchus (played by original Spring Awakening star Jonathan Groff), a rock-star makeover. At first this looks promising. After all, he’s just arrived in Thebes to raise some hell and smite nonbelievers like his cousin Pentheus (Anthony Mackie). Butt-hugging jeans and a leather jacket seems apropos for a pleasure-seeking young half-god/half-mortal. (Plus, lines like ”Semele was my mother, Zeus my father. And here I stand, a god amongst men” sound much cooler while a guy’s working a microphone like Mick Jagger.) And John Conklin’s deconstructed-amphitheater set — rows of bleachers collapsing into a pile of rubble — is inspired on many levels.
But every time the Bacchants — Dionysus’ followers and the play’s chorus — take the stage, they stop the show…and not in the good way. Never mind Kaye Voyce’s universally unflattering costumes (Asian-influenced warrior wear in a fiery shade of orange, with streaky coordinating war-paint makeup). The chorus is battling Philip Glass’ new choral compositions — none of which could ever be called lush — and, most egregiously, David Neumann’s herky-jerky, galumphing choreography. This is a problem since the Bacchants’ major purpose is to sing and dance — they even tell us so: ”We shall sing the name of Dionysus/Ever sing his glory and his power…. We dance eternal dances/For the pleasure of our god.” These are supposed to be vibrant, powerful women who roam hills and climb mountains in pursuit of passion and ecstasy, and yet they dress alike, they sing in cold, tight harmonies, and they move like robots.
As Dionysus’ enemy, the rational, principled King Pentheus, Mackie rants and raves with great authority, but shows precious little vulnerability. Though he rails against Dionysus, his highness needs to be slightly intrigued by the handsome, curly-haired troublemaker. (Why else would Pentheus suddenly allow himself to be talked into wearing a blond wig and flouncy purple evening gown to join the Bacchants?) And though Groff works his denim-clad behind off, he’s a good five to 10 years too young to play the god of wine, women, and song.
There is one brief glimmer of vitality in this Bacchae — a monologue at the play’s end of only about 100 lines or so, in which a messenger (the underrated character actor Rocco Sisto) relays the details of his master’s death and dismemberment at the hands of the Bacchants. He speaks with no flourish or fanfare. There’s no musical accompaniment. In fact, he hardly moves while recounting the grisly tale. But Sisto, with sad eyes and heavy heart, possesses more passion than all the women of Thebes combined. And this character, whom Euripedes neglected to give a name, succinctly and somberly conveys the fable’s meaning: ”It is best to fear god and live a simple life.” C-
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