BWW Review: A Genderfluid God Gets Revenge in Shaking the Tree's Thrilling BAKKHAI
It's not often that a Greek tragedy is the most exciting show on stage, but BAKKHAI, Anne Carson's new version of Euripides' The Bacchae is exactly that. Directed by Samantha Van Der Merwe, this play/visual art installation/concert will get your heart pumping. It will also make you thoughtful about how far we haven't progressed in the last 2,500 years.
Greek Gods are often jealous jerks, making humans do terrible things to appease their own egos. In BAKKHAI, Dionysus -- god of wine and religious ecstasy -- comes to Thebes to get revenge on the royal family, who happen to also be Dionysus' cousins, because they've been spreading a rumor that he's not actually a son of Zeus. As is typical in Greek tragedies, it doesn't go well for the mere mortals.
Euripides was subversive, especially when it comes to representations of gender. In BAKKHAI, Dionysus is genderfluid; his cousin, Pentheus, secretly adores dressing in drag; and women abandon their families to cavort in the woods. This upending of traditional ideas is just as shocking in many places today as it was back then.
The visual treat that is this production begins the moment you walk into the theatre and see Dionysus (played by Aries Osiris) sitting at one end, wearing a gorgeous flower-adorned gown that stretches the length of the room. When the play starts, Dionysus assumes his mortal form for his visit to Thebes, but you have to try very hard to see Osiris as anything other than a divinity -- their very presence commands attention. Soon the chorus enters -- providing commentary, music, and a sense of both religious and sexual ecstasy -- and the gruesome tragedy gets underway.
Van Der Merwe has a talent not only for creating rich sensory experiences, but also for drawing out the very best from her cast. In addition to Osiris, the standouts are Zak Westfall as Pentheus, who only becomes his true self when he puts on a dress, and Kelly Godell (Agave), whose small frame seems to expand ten sizes as she becomes filled with rage and grief.
In her director's notes, Van Der Merwe writes: "I'm so interested to know why we humans move in repetitive cycles, barreling towards our own destruction." This is precisely what happens in BAKKHAI -- a family-cum-society barrels towards destruction. It's a disturbing, but also a very thrilling, ride.
BAKKHAI runs through November 2. More details and tickets here.