August 26, 2009

"The Bacche" in the Park Is Less than Divine

In ancient Greek mythology, Dionysus is the god of theater, wine and ecstatic pleasure. In other words, my kind of guy. The Bacchae—the final play by the Greek playwright Euripides—tells the story of how the often-temperamental god avenges himself when the city of Thebes refuses to pay him the homage he believes he deserves. I reveled in Alan Cumming’s flamboyant portrayal of the deity in the National Theatre of Scotland’s captivating production of the play at last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival (click here to read my review). And I was eager to see what the avant-garde director JoAnne Akalaitis would do with it for the Shakespeare in the Park production that opened at the Delacorte Theater on Monday night. As it turned out, she hasn’t done nearly enough.

The main job of a director is to develop a vision for a play and get all the people involved in the show—the actors, designers and, in this case, the noted composer Philip Glass—to share that vision and bring it alive on stage. And as the classicist Simon Goldhill points out in his book “How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today,” the degree of difficulty rises when the play is a Greek drama since that gives the director the extra burden of finding a way to pull in the chorus that comments on the action in Greek plays and the gods who populate them so that those elements are also in harmony with the guiding vision. But everyone involved in the Akalaitis production seems to be dancing to his or her own lyre.

Jonathan Groff, who made a name for himself in Spring Awakening and last summer’s park production of Hair, is adorable. But just being cute doesn’t cut it when you’re playing Dionysus. If you’re going to be a god, then you’ve gotta be godly. The idea seems to be to have him portray the character as a rock star—Groff is costumed in torn jeans and a leather jacket—but, as my friend Jesse observed, he desperately needs some Mick Jagger-style swagger, the kind of menace that makes rock stars so divinely seductive.

Similarly Joan Macintoh fails to convey the anguish of Queen Agave who discovers, in true Greek-tragedy style, that she has unknowingly committed an horrendous murder. Anthony Mackie does a little better as Pentheus, the sanctimonious ruler of Thebes. But having found one strong note—how dogmatic the character is—he plays it over and over again.
Older actors like George Bartenieff as the patriarch Cadmus and André De Shields as the blind prophet Teiresias do slightly better. But you know something is wrong when bottom-of-the- Playbill characters like the Herdsman (Steven Rishard) and the Messenger (Rocco Sisto) are the standouts. It’s true that their speeches about terrible deeds are vivid in Nicholas Rudall’s translation but the audience the night Jesse and I saw the show just seemed grateful to have actors onstage who expressed some genuine emotion.

One of the show’s draws was supposed to be the original music composed by Glass, who is also Akalaitis’ former husband (click here to read a New York Times story about them). His score turns out to be more melodic than I had expected but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the show. Nor really does David Neumann’s synchronized choreography for the Chorus—12 women of different ages, ethnicities, shapes and dancing abilities.

The designers go their own way too. John Conklin’s set resembles a miniature sports arena complete with metal bleachers and a wading pool. I got that it's supposed to evoke the amphitheaters in which Greek plays were performed but the Delacorte itself already does that and watching characters run and up down the bleachers or splash in the water for no apparent reason got tired fast. I have no idea what Kaye Voyce is trying to evoke with the costumes. Groff and Mackie are in modern dress, Bartenieff and De Shields are done up like vaudevillians and the all-female Chorus look like refugees from a Vegas version of The King and I.

“How bad was that?” asked the young, Brad Pitt-look-a-like who struck up a conversation with Jesse and me as we walked out of the park. He told us he was an actor and he had the arrogant aura that would have made for a good Dionysus. I’m not sure what the god himself would have thought of the production. There is something almost mystical about seeing any show on a beautiful night in the park. And the ushers were allowing people to carry plastic cups of wine to their seats. But as for the ecstatic pleasure, he would have to look elsewhere.

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