Like many kids, I was enchanted by the stories of Greek and Roman mythology. Like, I suspect, only a few, I spent the summer between 7th and 8th grades, reading “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” And I’ve never quite shaken my fascination with their original superheroes. I may be the only person living in a Manhattan zip code to admit to not only having seen but actually liking Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” with Brad Pitt as the mighty Greek hero Achilles and Eric Bana as his worthy Trojan rival Hector. And yet, it was with no little trepidation that I made my way to the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Euripides’s The Bacchae, which kicked off this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival 08.
I think it was all those pictures of a golden-skirted Alan Cumming as the god Dionysus that gave me pause. Did I really want to see him do his androgyny thing again? I needn’t have worried. Both he and the production are splendid. And I suspect that Euripides would have liked it all as well. According to the reference books, Greek plays were divided strictly along genre lines—tragedies, comedies, and something call satyr plays that tended to be raunchy. But Euripides seems to have liked to mix them up a bit. And that’s just what this show does.
The Bacchae tells the story of Dionysus, the son of the chief god Zeus and a human woman, who returns to his mother’s homeland, demands that his countryman recognize him as a god and wreaks retribution when they refuse. Despite the life and death subject matter, there’s campy humor (Xanadu fans would feel quite at home), rousing gospel and soul singing by a nine-member chorus of black women dressed in fabulous red gowns, and flamboyant stagecraft (I know you’ve already heard about the opening where an upside-down Cumming descends from the heavens with his naked butt facing the audience). But there’s harrowing tragedy too, most notably in the Italian-born and British-trained actress Paola Dionisotti’s affective portrayal of Agave, the mother who, in typical Greek drama fashion, unknowingly murders her child (click here to hear Cumming and Dionisotti discuss the play and to see excerpts from the original Scottish production).
Anyone with just a passing knowledge of Greek drama knows that dysfunctional families are the ur-theme of western theater. Of course, even the experts have only a passing knowledge of Greek drama because so little of it has survived. The plays grew out of religious rituals and were often one-time only events written to be presented at festivals held to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstatic good times and, eventually the divine patron of the theater.
Only the works of the playwrights Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus remain and so we don’t really know how they would compare if we could read or see the works of their peers. But there are indications that they were considered the big dogs of their day. Aeschylus, the eldest of the three, is reported to have won the top honor at Athens’s annual City Dionysia festival 13 times; Sophocles did even better with 18 first prizes. Euripides took home that award just five times but he may have gotten the last laugh. And not just because more of his plays survive than those of the other two. It’s because Euripedes is actually sort of a postmodern kind of guy.
The characters in his plays are more complex, even recognizably neurotic to a 21st century sensibility. His tone tends to be cynically irreverent and almost contemporarily wary of the establishment. The once-again-hot debate over rationalism versus religion is the main subject of The Bacchae, which was first performed posthumously after Euripides died in 406 B.C. at the august age of 74 and which won his final Dionysia honor. But what I most like about him is that judging from such works as Medea, Andromache, Hecuba, Electra, The Trojan Women, Iphigeneia in Tauris and even the characters Agave and the Maenads, or mad women, in The Bacchae, Euripides was comfortable dealing with strong female characters, even if the parts back them were played by men.
And for that reason alone, I don’t know why we don’t see more of his works done, given all the brilliant female actors who have far too few opportunities to really strut their stuff. David Greig’s colloquial script shows that the dialog can be adapted for modern ears. And John Tiffany, the director who created last year’s highly acclaimed Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse, has mounted a 90-minute production that is simultaneously true to the play’s ancient text and thoroughly entertaining for modern audiences even if the only Odyssey they know is the new Honda minivan. But the run ends on July 13 so there are only a few days left if you want to revel in this surprisingly satisfying bacchanal.
Hi! I just found your blog and since your a theatre lover I thought I'd let you know about my blog...I'm a 15 year old professional actress and I blog(or vlog) my journeys as an actress. My last season was kalyn's blog(cabaret Edition) and it features members of the PA Youth Music and Theatrics. And on July 26th Kalyn's Blog(Kalyn goes to NY) will premiere. Kalyn goes to NY will feature Music Theatre Workshop Students. Also, as part of Kalyn goes to NY we will attend a Broadway Workshop(last year it was with Legally Blonde: Search for Elle Wood's Seth Rudetsky) and meet the cast of Gyspy. I also blog backstage, behind the scenes, and just normal activities that young actors participate in. I basically just do vlogs, and they were originally intended to be funny, but people have told me that by watching them they understand more about me and about my life. So just thought you might be interested in my blogs. thanks
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