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Review - The Bacchae: Revenge With Music

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I think it's important to report right from the outset that several times during The Public's outdoor production of Euripides' ancient Greek drama, The Bacchae, I looked down to discover that I was involuntarily tapping my toes to Philip Glass' new score. It's not that the master minimalist had peppered the centuries-old text With a collection of Jerry Hermanish showtunes, but that the tandem work of Glass' scoring for synth, brass and percussion and Nicholas Rudall's brisk, modern-sounding translation produced an irresistible give-and-take between speech and tone. No mere incidentals, Glass' airy, elongated pitches, frequently lush and at times strikingly accented, carry equal weight as the spoken words; echoing, answering back, subtextualizing and, most importantly, pushing the production toward its inevitable climax. If the composer's contribution is the 90-minute evening's most memorable, that's not to discredit the rest of director JoAnne Akalaitis' always interesting (if sometimes lacking for passion) production.

Scenic designer John Conklin places a dilapidated set of metal bleachers upstage, angled in a manner to make any skateboarder salivate. It's the only set piece on the stage of slate rock tiles, cracked from the center of downstage to upstage, leaving a very wide playing space for actors to navigate. This is especially apparent as Jonathan Groff commences the play in a young rock star interpretation of the Greek God of the Vine, Dionysus. Strutting his way across the wide reaches of the Delecorte stage while maneuvering a hand-held microphone as if he were Mick Jagger about to go down on the darn thing he angrily tells the story of why the circumstances surrounding his birth and the lies spread by his aunt Agave (Joan MacIntosh) and her son Pentheus, the King of Thebes (Anthony Mackie), have perpetuated the notion that his father was not Zeus, but a mere mortal.

So until the people of Thebes are once again free to worship him, Dionysus has whipped up the women of the city into a frenzy (as rock stars are known to do); having them all settle outside the city for drunken revelries. Mackie is a storm of fury as Pentheus, sporting a corporate exec look (costumes are by Kaye Voyce) and a humorless arrogance; the latter comes in very handy when the young god has a revenge cooked up that involves his mustachioed cousin dragging it up. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line a decision was made to keep Dionysus even-tempered after his initial monologue, diffusing some of the evening's potentiAl Sparks. Revenge isn't very theatrical when the victor shows little delight in it.


The fine supporting cast includes MacIntosh's fiercely delusional Agave, sweetly understated turns by George Bartenieff (as Agave's father, Cadmus) and Andre De Shields (as the blind prophet Teiresias) and some gripping story-telling from Rocco Sisto, as the messenger whose eyewitness account of Dionysus' violent revenge sets up the play's final tragic scene.

From the style of their bright orange jump suits and the choreography by David Neumann, it seems Dionysus may have picked up the all-female chorus from his travels to India and other reaches of East Asia. Benefitting from Glass' most beautiful harmonic chords (they both sing and rhythmically speak their choral pieces) the ensemble's extended dance sequences are an elegant highlight of the production.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackie; Bottom: The Chorus


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