Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bacchae, Austin Community College Rio Grande Campus, November 14 - 23

Powerful, mythic, pagan and frightening –ACC’s Bacchae, directed by Arthur Adair and presented by a cast that is dedicated, haunting, and decisive, is no easy evening of theatre. This profound experience grabs you by the throat and opens your eyes to a world of danger and excess.

Take a look at the letters of the title. That glistening, dripping red-orange color is uncomfortably close to smeared blood. Think about that if you’re vaguely attracted to a play that offers some nudity.

Adair and his cast have taken key conventions of the classic Greek theatre, including the use of masks and the use of the multi-person chorus speaking and chanting as a single individual. But unlike the static presentations of antiquity, their piece surges out of the frame. The first row of seats is prohibited to the public, for they are used as points of attack for the actors. Entrances and scenes play out along the center aisle and sides. Actors speak and chant from the rear. The fascinating, harrowing action of this play can come at you from any direction, up close and personal.

Few in the audience will know the story. The program handed out at the door is diverting in itself, with information about Euripides, some rambling director’s notes, an acknowledgement that the text is pulled from several sources, the technical info and bios of the players and staff. But it doesn’t summarize the plot, and spectators may be confused about the names and the story at the same time that their senses are being overfilled with spectacle.

Briefly and without much erudition, then, a summary of the action:

Dionysius, also known as Bacchus, is the god of wine, altered states, frenzy and ecstasy – in this case, etymologically, ec + stasis, which means “removal to someplace completely different.” He is the child of the great god Zeus, who mated with the mortal woman Semele. Her body was consumed as if by lightning; Zeus saved the engendered child and sealed it within his thigh for the period of gestation. As the play opens, Cadmus the retired king of Thebes and the blind prophet Tiresias lament the disorder in the city-kingdom; women have disappeared from the city into the forests, where they are indulging in rites to honor Dionysus (dionysian revels are also known as bacchanals, so the celebrants are the “bacchae,” – singular, “bacchante”). Cadmus’ daughter Agave is leading the rites; the bare-breasted celebrants chant verse that is rhythmic, poetic and menacing.

Agave’s son Pentheus, now exercising kingly authority, is having none of it. Pentheus does not believe in Dionysus and scorns the cult. His soldiers captured and imprisoned bacchae, and he sends his men off to arrest a fresh-faced young foreigner reported to be encouraging these excesses.

Pentheus’s arrogance (hubris) means that he will inevitably and literally get the shaft by the end of the play. His men bring in the foreigner, eerily embodied by three shaven-headed young men speaking simultaneously in the same voice. Pentheus, who sees only a single individual, challenges this Dionysian missionary on his faith but gets no satisfactory answers. Soldiers pack the three-in-one offstage to prison, where the chains and locks on him and his celebrants give way. The women escape again to the woods.

Infuriated, Pentheus has the stranger brought back to court. Messenger-soldiers report on the ecstatic rituals of the escaped women. The men chant from the rear of the auditorium; before us, onstage, bathed in floods of light, blood-red and ice-blue, the bacchae carry out their rituals. Pentheus’ reason is numbed by Dionysus’ words. Hypnotised, he avows his desire to see the bacchic rites. He agrees to Dionysus’ suggestion to disguise himself in a woman’s robe, lifted without his knowledge from his mother’s body. Pentheus situates himself in the top of a pine tree, the better to peek upon the ceremonies. His mother and the other bacchae tear him to pieces.

(And maybe you thought that the classics were boring?)

Agave returns to the court, proclaiming to her father Cadmus (grandfather to King Pentheus, remember) that the women have captured a fine lion. She carries Pentheus’ head and her followers dump a sack of body parts at her feet. The solemn, grieving tones of Cadmus (Roberto Riggio) bring her out of her rapture and she realizes that through her Dionysus has taken revenge.

At this point the single extant Greek text is missing pages. Director and cast elected to stop the action so the dramaturg Ryan Manning could explain. After a few lame jokes from the dramaturg and a couple of false starts, director Adair instructs Cadmus and Agave to cut to the end – a desolate dialogue about loss and change.

The cast in this production achieve an elevated, almost hallucinatory intensity in their lines, establishing the action in an imaginary sphere far from the merely representative drama with which American audiences are so familiar. It is coherent and compelling. The multiplication of Dionysus, the throb and drone of music, the use of partial and then total nudity, the eerie and highly effective use of light and space – all of this induces in the spectators feelings resembling those of the enraptured bacchae. There is a severe and unpleasant jolt when this style is interrupted – early on, for example, when the ancients Cadmus and Tiresias are briefly played as clowns, with asides to the audience and even a trill from Tiresias from West Side Story (“I feel pretty. . . .”). In contrast, the jolt works in positive fashion at the missing pages toward the end, which probably contained an injunction to the city of Thebes from cloud-borne Dionysus (a “deus ex machina” not for magic resolution but rather for judgment and admonition). Even there, however, a sobre, even puzzled tone might have worked better than jokiness.

Triplifying Dionysus was an inspired stroke – first, as Adair explained in the post-production Q&A, because it establishes him as an immortal beyond human comprehension. But also because it gives three closely tied but nevertheless differentiated views of that godhead. Patrick Byers, John Montoya and J.R. Zambrano impress not only with their crisp, multiplied diction, but also in the odd and intimidating choreography of their movement.

Josh McGlasson, as Pentheus the tragic hero of the piece, is authoritative and eloquent at every moment – becoming even more so as he is gradually unsexed and sent into plaintive narcotic helplessness. Following the symbolic murder he remains kneeling, stunned, as the bacchantes caress the swaths of crimson gauze representing his torn tissues and Ashley Monical as his mother Agave exults and lifts a replica of his head.

Soldiers Carlos Lujan, Thomas Moore, John Osborne showed agility and discipline; their chanted account of the bacchic rituals instilled a hypnotic counterpart to the visual enactment onstage.

Sincere thanks to bacchae Esther Jimena Garcia, Anna McConnell, Aisa Palomares, and Sally Anne Marie Ziegler, as well as to Ashley Monical as Agave, for their courage and accomplishment in carrying out this challenging action. Their mastery of the text was superb. They were alluring, vulnerable, and profoundly unsettling for us – as I sat in the second row on opening night, at one point early in the spectacle a bacchante loomed over us in the eerie half-light of the public space. The rapture and fierce living certainty of her chant left me crouching low, as if any false move would unleash catastrophe.

The Bacchae is memorable, otherworldly and a triumph for Arthur Adair, for his cast, and for Austin Community College. Not to be missed!

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