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8/28/09
The Bacchae
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Last summer season, the Public Theater paired Hamlet with the musical Hair—which subsequently went to Broadway and won the Tony for Best Revival. This year, the Delacorte played host to another Shakespeare classic, Twelfth Night, paired with another bawdy piece: the Greek drama The Bacchae, scored with new music by Philip Glass. Alas, this Bacchae is not likely to transfer or win any awards. JoAnne Akalaitis’s concept has some interesting and ambitious notions, but they never quite fuse with the text or the performances. The result is a sluggish 90-minute show that feels much longer. (And which inspired numerous walkouts on the evening I attended—the first time I’ve witnessed that in years of attending the Delacorte).

Euripides’s 2,400 year-old tragedy is rarely a crowd pleaser—the story of Dionysus and his revenge upon those who doubt his godliness is filled with wickedness, debauchery and long monologues. It can be titillating theater though, as proved last summer at Lincoln Center by the National Theatre of Scotland. That production had the virtue of Alan Cumming’s petulant, pansexual performance as Dionysus and a strong turn by Cal MacAninch as a rigid, ramrod Pentheus. It also had a chorus of woman who looked like Motown back-up singers and a huge wall of fire. John Tiffany’s staging may have been gimmicky, but it’s burned into my memory.

If Tiffany’s production wanted to show Dionysus as a gold-lame wearing Divo; Akalaitis wants to present him as a grungy, indie-rock heartthrob. Jonathan Groff (of last year’s Hair) looks the part with his curly locks, adorable face and a streak of red lipstick trailing from his mouth. Unfortunately, he has little command of the words in Nicholas Rudall’s translation and even less presence. He projects no menace or power. A good Dionysus should be felt on stage even he’s not physically there. During the long passages Groff is off-stage, you forget he’s the central character.

The BacchaeAnthony Mackie is the Pentheus in this production (which runs through August 30th); he has a likeable presence on stage and resonant voice, but dressed in modern attire he feels like an actor at a reading rather than a fully realized character (let alone an King in ancient times).

Much of the ensemble acting is the same: well rehearsed, well spoken but lacking in persuasion. The lone stand out for me was Andre De Shields as the blind prophet Teiresias. The veteran actor’s diction, his gestures all work to create the image and sound of someone from the past. De Shields’s Teiresias is the one element of the production that feels timeless.

The rest of the show has striking elements—John Conklin’s set looks like high school bleachers designed by Frank Gehry; Kaye Voyce’s costumes make Dionysus’s women look like space cadets out a 1950’s sci-fi B-Movie, and of course there’s Philip Glass’s new score.

The composer’s original music for The Bacchae works best when it’s simply underscoring spoken sections. Glass’s incidental music here shares the simple moods and gentle thrust of his better soundtracks. The vocal pieces on the other hand, resemble Glass trying to fuse his own style with the poppy, rock idiom of shows like Spring Awakening. The melodies feel forced and the music doesn’t reflect what the characters (usually the chorus) are singing about. Not helping things is the fact that the musicians are stashed to the side of the stage. Amplification ensures that the music is heard, but it—like too many facets of this production—rarely feels connected to the action and emotions at the heart of Euripides’s drama.

Photo by Joan Marcus

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.