By Euripides
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Francois Rochaix
At the American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center 
Cambridge, MA -- closed 

Reviewed by G.L. Horton
Euripides “The Bacchae”, directed by Francois Rochaix, opened the 1997-98 season at the American Repertory Theatre. Featuring a newly translated text by Paul Schmidt, in a setting by Jean-Claude Maret that quoted classicism and with Catherine Zuber providing the ART's standard eclectic costuming, the production had a very friendly reception from the Boston critics, and at least a respectful silence from scholars-- nothing like the uproar that greeted the ART’s ambitious postmodern update of the “Oresteia” in 1995, also directed by Rochaix. I can’t account for this approval, except to postulate that everyone was relieved that this “Bacchae” was a comparatively straightforward reading, with no assaults on the audience, few wild anachronisms to challenge the understanding, and no political pitfalls. It was safe to see, and safe to take one’s opinion of the Great Greek Play from Drama 101.  But the very simplicity of the production exposed weaknesses that should not be tolerated by a company with the reputation and resources of the ART, a company  claiming comparison with the best of the subsidized theatres abroad.

Not that the ART’s was a bad “Bacchae”.  I’ve seen worse. But those unsatisfactory productions were high school, college, or church basement shows, and it was a great disappointment to find the ART’s potentially revelatory and presumptively world class production falling into the middle range, and failing in the same way those makeshifts did. Like them, Rochaix at the ART fielded an uneven cast, and failed to come up with an effective way to stage the all-important Choruses. Two out of three of the "Oresteia" choruses had been re-thought and re-staged in a way to make them speak to some present-day experience that was analogous to the matter of Aeschylos' drama.  But with the "Bacchae", we were back to the standard staging, a staging notoriously unworkable and frequently parodied.  Some in the audience were hard pressed to stifle their unseemly guffaws.
The Rochaix chorus at least had some training in classical speech, and made every word clear, if not particularly meaningful. The young women playing Maenids, mostly students at the ART’s Institute, were also physically adept and good looking. But they were encumbered by ridiculous mulberry colored curled wigs, and Catherine Zuber's uncomfortable costumes that were variants of Dionysos’ garb as the god appears on antique vases: a short gauzy white chiton girded with an animal skin, bare knees, hunter's boots -- in this case, modern shit kicker boots, rather than the cross-laced sandal boots of the ancient world. The incongruous effect would do very well for a camp send-up, or for Gilbert and Sullivan, but on the ART the costuming’s comic potential was a handicap seldom overcome. The chorus danced and posed with the clumsy “grace” of the bed sheet wrapped Iowa housewives in “The Music Man”.  Although the young actors were fairly effective when reacting to other characters onstage, when caught up in their choreography they declaimed Euripedes‘ poetry in the manner of clueless performers everywhere-- with maximum angst and minimal specificity. Under the schoolmarmish leadership of the usually interesting Karen MacDonald, the Bacchantes came across as good girls doing their best under difficult circumstances; obviously hoping that by dint of hard work and following directions they would please their instructors and be granted further access to the serious realms of Theatrical Art. Puh-lease! The Bacchae must be uncanny, gentlemen. Wild Women. Women woman-bonded and supernaturally powerful and out of male control. Women (even if, as in classical times, they are played by young men) who strike terror into the hearts of all respectable citizens. Difficult as it may be to put this essence on the stage, there are images for it in life -- Dykes on Bikes, radical protest marchers flinging themselves onto police barricades, the roof-raising improvisations of a Pentecostal gospel choir.

King Pentheus’ henchmen--- more dewy young student actors, this time pretending to be bureaucratic thugs uniformed in shiny bottle green business suits-- looked equally silly; but since the audience needn’t fear them, that didn’t matter nearly as much.

What the ART’s show did have going for it was a divine Dionysos, a Bacchic god to die for. Michael Edo Keane as Dionysos revealed himself in otherworldly splendor, looking as if he stepped out of a frieze from the Palace of Minos on Crete. The Greek god of wine and ecstasy came leaping onto his stage, the stage he owns as patron of the drama and the deity for whose Festival Euripides wrote, appearing in a flash of light and a cloud of smoke, accompanied by thunder and shouting. Dionysos was supernaturally tall, his snaky hair hanging in long Egyptian braids, his skin smooth and golden, his torso molded by a gilded leather corset, his long legs wrapped in an Indian sari-skirt. With the power of absolute assurance Keane announced, "I am the son of God!" -- not, in Schmidt’s translation, “a god”, or “Zeus”-- but the formulation most likely to get a rise out of a Judeo-Christian audience when uttered by a divine creature in drag.

Such effrontery seems to be characteristic of the Schmidt translation’s point of view. The language is a melding of the modern colloquial and a formality that evokes Christian ritual, and in that it is much like the familiar William Arrowsmith translation. But where Arrowsmith highlights Dionysos’ truth bearing function, and credits his worship in ecstatic dance as a source of clear-sighted prophecy and the acknowledgment of natural ties to the earth and maternal nurture, Schmidt ‘s Dionysos is associated with art as play rather than art as prophecy.  The god's gifts are drunken distraction and forgetfulness, and whether careless mortals indulge or oppose them, devastation follows.  There is no consolatory gain in wisdom, no sense that the god's terrible visitation is a necessary redress for a society out of balance.  Schmidt’s post-modern deity is arbitrary, his vengeance a personal matter of balm for the wounded self-esteem of a powerful being who is, after all, half-human --- and in vengeance all-too-human. Schmidt’s godling is really pissed that his mother Semele’s sisters bad-mouthed her, and he is ready to wipe out the whole human side of his family simply for calling him a bastard.

Keane, however, seems to be playing the larger, pre-modern Dionysos. His bearing throughout is serene, he smiles the benign classical smile even when his lines are petulant.  His very existence a rebuke to the short-term rationalizations of petty men like Pentheus and his crew, concerned merely with the logic of political power and social order.

Another plus for the production was Will LeBow as the blind prophet Tiresias. Although garbed in a kind of fifties prom dress version of the Bacchantes outfit to indicate that Tiresias is acknowledging his “feminine side” in honor of the god, and with his sightlessness made to serve as the butt of a certain amount of blind-man's-buff slapstick, LeBow kept Tiresias’ dignity and motivated his every word and move. Not so Alvin Epstein in the role of Kadmos, grandsire of both Dionysos and his mortal cousin King Pentheus. Kadmos’ pretty red prom dress apparently went to the actor’s head, and inspired all sorts of cute little embroideries and digressions. Schmidt's words for the old men are dignified, but the picture Kadmos presents is ridiculous. I didn’t know what Epstein and the director intended by these early antics, but the effect is to undercut Pentheus' appearance later, when Euripides points up the contrast between a sincere and a blasphemous assumption of Bacchic costume.

Benjamin Evett, a dependable and occasionally even inspired supporting actor some few years out of the ART Institute’s training program, provided a Pentheus who was a competent if callow boss of the Guys in Green Suits. (But why, Ms. Zuber,  is a character so scornful of long-haired effeminacy sporting a ponytail? And why does Pentheus put on a wig to disguise himself as a woman, when all he need do is loosen the rubber band and let his locks flow free?) Evett’s characterization gained power just as King Pentheus loses it, when the control freak ruler falls under the mesmeric spell of the attractive stranger he fails to recognize as the god, and his repressed urges surge forth. Stephen Rowe’s Cowherd delivered the classic goods in his long descriptive speech,  endowing the Maenads’ off-stage encounter with Pentheus’ soldiers with real pity and terror.
Pentheus's mother, Agave, was played by Randy Danson.   Agave, Dionysos' aunt and the persecutor of his mother Semele, figures largely in the dialogue, but appears only in the last minutes of the play.   Demetrius Conley-Williams, yet another Institute graduate, did his school proud as the Messenger whose speech prepares Agave's entrance. Conley-Williams' dramatic storytelling made Pentheus’ last hour more vivid in the mind than most of the images and actions that were literally before us. God-possessed and triumphant, the Queen mother comes to the palace carrying the realistically bloody portrait head of Pentheus,  which she displays to all as the head of a lion she has killed with her bare hands. Danson carries this off, and the women of the chorus rise to the occasion, achieving something like tragic awe.   Epstein's Kadmos, too, dropped his affectations and served his scene partner as she moved through her gradual awakening to the horror of what the god has done to her. When at her father's prompting Agave finally recognized that the "lion" head she holds is actually her murdered son's,  Danson lets loose a series of screams that harrow the soul, they are such a distillation of. pain and guilt.

Agave's grief and and Kadmos' mourning for the destruction of his posterity, his house,  is succeeded by Dionysos' revelation of the wrath that will be visited on Thebes in the future.  In the ART production, this is made present and literal by an earthquake that brings down  the royal palace.   This was odd, because the earthquake earlier in the play, the one with which Dionysos bursts his bonds and frees himself from Pentheus' prison, didn't happen.   That is, the earthquake happened in the dialogue, and there were some bits thunder and lightning when Dionysos walked out of the enclosure that held him: but the ART designers, noted for spectacular stage effects, took a pass on that one and saved the big bang for the finish.

Is it proof of the power of Euripides' dramaturgy that when the ART's  stage images contradicted the story’s words,  mostly the words prevailed?  Or is it evidence of directorial failure? Sometimes, as in the difference between Pentheus’ appearance in his woman’s disguise and Dionysos’ description of it, this contradiction did seem intended to underline Euripidean irony in a straightforward way. Other times, as when green plastic garbage bags, enough of them to hold the refuse of a small village, were heaped on a table and pointed to as holding the carefully-gathered fragments of Pentheus’ dismembered body, the mind simply boggled at the anachronism, noted the dissonance, and, rejecting the eyes' evidence, responded to the words.  I suspect that this may illustrate how it came about that most people in the Boston area have the impression that the ART audience saw a successful performance of "The Bacchae"  --- it happened in spite of the production.