Passion, possession, and obsession are primary themes in The Bacchae by Euripides. They also lie at the heart of Caryl Churchill and David Lan's A Mouthful of Birds, a dance theater piece that is a loosely constructed riff on the Greek classic. The production is currently being staged by the Rude Mechanicals Theater Company in rotating repertory with Charles Mee's The Bacchae 2.1.
Dionysus (Craig Yochem) enters in a see-through white skirt and a tattered flesh-colored body stocking. He performs a slow, balletic dance before disappearing off-stage. Then the production explodes into a flurry of activity: A woman with a lilting Jamaican accent (Heather Gillespie) answers continually ringing phones for Continental Lingerie; a female acupuncturist (Helen P. Coxe) gets a little aggressive with one of her clients; a young priest (Donnie Mather) declares, "I don't believe God's necessarily male." Numerous characters are introduced, but it's difficult to understand what's going on.
David Korins' set features enough doors to stage a farce. There are at least 12, plus a few windows and cupboards that open up. Yet Churchill and Lan's script is far from farcical. It boasts a dark undercurrent that has its humorous elements but does not make for a light evening's entertainment.
The play tells seven separate stories, set in contemporary London. A strong ensemble cast brings to life various characters, both living and dead. Sequences from The Bacchae are heard in whispered voiceovers, occasionally acted out by the performers. The link is a tenuous one and, at times, quite unclear. However, that does not spoil the enjoyment of some of the individual tales.
In one story, a man becomes obsessed with a pig. While the premise seems ridiculous, the execution is flawless. Eric Siegel plays the character with an understated intensity. "Even domestic pigs are dangerous," he intones matter-of-factly. "They can bite through metal. At the same time, they're so gentle." As the scene goes on, the character's obsession becomes more and more pronounced. He daydreams about dancing with his pig (played with campy charm by Mather). Rebecca Taylor's tight direction prevents the scene from going too far over the top, but it's Siegel's grounded performance that gives the sequence its emotional resonance and dramatic power.
Another tale features a voodoo practitioner (Gillespie). She's used to being the medium for a spirit named Baron Sunday. However, the baron has moved on, and the voodoo woman is now visited by the ghost of a dead Englishwoman known only as "The Princess" (Coxe). Gillespie is a wonderfully physical performer whose body spasms contrast nicely to the cool, collected, and restrained manner of The Princess. This is, perhaps, the scene that most literally embodies the theme of possession, and its ending is appropriately creepy and discomfiting.
Not all of the other stories are as brilliant, the priest's tale being the least clear. The character has encounters with a man and a woman, but it's difficult to tell if these are sexual, murderous, or perhaps both. Dance sequences substitute for dialogue, and a parallel scene between two cops seems completely unrelated.
The evening does not quite coalesce into a unified whole. The use of sequences from The Bacchae adds little to the play's impact and often seems a pretentious device to ease transitions. Euripides' text may have been the original starting point for A Mouthful of Birds, but Churchill and Lan's play has evolved into something else entirely. That's not a bad thing; this is a haunting work that lingers with you even after you've left the theater.