Review: SITI Company's Updated, International BACCHAE at Guthrie Theater

By: Mar. 12, 2020

Review: SITI Company's Updated, International BACCHAE at Guthrie Theater Euripides' BACCHAE is one of the bloodiest of the Greek tragedies we have: a grisly tale of how violently the capricious Olympian gods can retaliate on mortals if they feel disrespected. Here, the god in question is Dionysus, god of wine, passion, fertility--and theater. As played by Ellen Lauren, he's sinewy and androgynous and lewd: part Mick Jagger, part mad imp.

To the strains of "I Put a Spell on You" she makes her entrance in maroon leather pants, a red crop top marked with a snake, and a long black leather coat. She dominates the Guthrie's big proscenium space with a remarkably kinesthetic opening monologue, a real bravura show, that includes audience interaction and comic bits as well as great feats of physical conditioning. She's dangerous, funny, repellent and fascinating all at once. That she's otherworldly (son of Zeus and the mortal Semele) is underscored by the fact that, no matter how spectacular her gyrations, you never hear her footfalls.

Behind her sit the nine other members of the SITI ensemble, clad in gray men's suit jackets and long full black skirts: an androgynous representation of the common people. They carry martial art staffs. They provide stylized choral action, living architecture, sometimes moving in unison like a flock of birds or school of fish. They give voice (sometimes in unison, sometimes as solo voices) to the unfolding events, and chant occasionally, including this, repetitively: "What then is wisdom? What finer prize?"

Simple visual design is given power by enormous scale: two basic benches are backed by great swaths of white curtains on which varied light can be thrown. Eventually red fabric will also be flown in, at a slow pace that suggests the inevitability of fate, once the chain of events reaches a certain point. Lights and scenic design are both by Brian H. Scott.

As needed, individuals split off from the chorus and reappear in different dress. (Costumes are by Lena Sands.) Tiresias, the blind seer, and Cadmus, the retired king, are a comic pair as played by Barney O'Hanlon and Steven Duff Webber. Donnell E. Smith plays the current king (and eventual victim of Dionysus' wrath) in a white suit and Rolex, until he is transformed by Dionysus in order to go spy on the women of Thebes, who have absconded to the mountainous forests to celebrate the god's rites. Leon Ingulsrud and Will Bond each deliver one of the crucial long messenger monologues, required by the Greek convention that all violent action will happen off stage and be described verbally, not enacted, before the audience.

Every word in this BACCHAE is crystal clear--including the ones that aren't in English. Akiko Aizawa speaks Japanese, her native tongue, in a long monologue that comes near the end of the 95 minute intermissionless performance. Having played as a member of the chorus up to that point, she reappears as Queen Mother Agave, possessed, in trance, and eventually consumed by horror and overwhelming grief. All of that comes through with the power of her speech and movement: we don't need to know what the individual sentences mean, given her consummate delivery. This monologue bookends the opening monologue performed by Lauren, in a wholly different performance register. Thus this show allows us to see two world class women actors in one evening.

It's rare in this country for a company of actors to stay together for a season, much less for the roughly 30 years that Siti Company has. Co-founded by directors Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki, SITI has a rigorous core practice based in two training methodologies, largely created by the founders. I have never practiced Suzuki work and thus have only a rudimentary understanding of it, but know that it involves strong, differentiated work on the feet and the connection to the earth.

I know more about the Viewpoints work Bogart developed with the Siti Company, building off a basis supplied by modern dancer Mary Overlie. Viewpoints promotes radical responsiveness to one's fellow performers and to all external stimuli (like sound). It imparts a physical discipline designed to pare movement down to essential, expressive gesture and shape, with great attention to tempo shifts and stillness. Both Suzuki and Viewpoints work migrated into the training systems of all serious acting schools in this country over the last generation. Together they provide an important corrective to solipsistic overemphasis on internal emotion by actors who have been led in that direction by a misunderstanding of Method technique.

This shared vocabulary gives the Siti Company an incredible creative synergy that is generated by the actors themselves, in response to prompts from Director Bogart and other company members, like their remarkable sound designer Darron L. West. I was once privileged to be in the rehearsal room for several days with the company while they were developing a new piece at Actor's Theater of Louisville, and was astonished by the rate at which they were able to generate spectacular staging improvisationally--and the rigor with which they discarded whole chunks of it when it was determined that it didn't really serve the central intent of the piece.

I recognize that Greek tragedy is not everyone's cup of tea. It's worth remembering that attending theater was a civic duty in ancient Greece, since it was the site where big questions were placed before society--or at least before the men of the Athenian democracy. Women were not allowed to attend. If you identify as female, that alone might be reason to see this. But let me offer a few more rationales....

Euripides was the third and youngest of the great tragic playwrights, and a disrupter in his own time. Author of MEDEA as well as THE BACCHAE, he often wrote about women breaking the rules. Here, he is also writing about one of the most disruptive forces in society: dionysiac frenzy. For any of us who are serious about understanding the roots of Western theater, THE BACCHAE is a crucial piece of the puzzle. For anyone who wants to understand how to look directly at extremes of human behavior, as, for instance, addiction or insanity, THE BACCHAE provides a model. Additionally, the play dissects how rigidity in the leaders of a society can lead to destruction. Moreover, anyone who wants to witness the cutting edge of theatrical creativity in our own time needs to see what Anne Bogart and the Siti Company do.

THE BACCHAE runs through April 5 in Minneapolis.

Photo credit: Dan Norman

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