There seems to be a mini-explosion of adaptations of The Bacchae emanating from downtown New York's rich theatrical scene. The popular performance troupe Elevator Repair Service recently staged Highway to Tomorrow, a postmodern take on the Greek classic. Now the Rude Mechanicals Theater Company is presenting two more contemporary versions: Caryl Churchill and David Lan's A Mouthful of Birds and Charles Mee's The Bacchae 2.1. Both New York premieres are presented in rotating repertory.
Mee's work follows Euripides' basic plot. Dionysus (Michael Aronov), son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Semele, comes to Thebes. The ruler of the city, Pentheus (Jonathan Tindle), refuses to acknowledge Dionysus' godhood. In the mountains, Dionysus unleashes the passions and unbridled sexuality of a group of women including Pentheus' mother, Agave (Cam Kornman). Pentheus' quest to bring down the god--as well as his curiosity about the actions of the women--leads to a tragic end. However, within this basic structure, Mee is able to add layers of emotion and complexity that go beyond the original tale.
The Bacchae 2.1 is richly poetic. In addition to Euripides' play, the script draws from a variety of sources ranging from German literary theorist Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies to Valerie Solanas' The S.C.U.M. Manifesto. Mee cites Max Ernst's Fatagaga collages as inspiration for the way he composed his text. The juxtapositions are striking, creating word images of remarkable beauty and obscene discomfort. "A wicked pleasure hangs over war, the voluptuousness of blood like a red storm-sail over a black man-of-war," says an aide to Pentheus (Omar Metwally). The plot becomes secondary to the exploration of language and the fullness of emotion.
Kenn Watt directs a talented cast. Aronov, as Dionysus, is both seductive and whimsical. Tindle's Pentheus is a mass of repressed feelings that find expression in a strained vocal intonation and cartoonish facial twitches. Metwally and Scott Bowman, as Pentheus' two aides, deliver bizarrely hilarious non-sequiturs with passion and conviction. Cam Kornman, as Agave, has an impish quality oddly reminiscent of Carol Kane.
The production is stylish--to be precise, it is a hodgepodge of different styles. Watt seems to be trying for a visual equivalent of Mee's textual strategy. He is amply assisted in this endeavor by his designers: David Korins (sets), Scott Clyve (lighting), and Melissa-Anne Blizzard (costumes). The five female Bacchae begin the piece dressed as if they were refugees from a Fosse-esque musical. "Jazz hands, you bitches," prods Dionysus, who then leads them in a disco dance. When the action shifts to the city of Thebes, it is represented by a two dimensional backdrop of a grand hall. The actors sit on miniature chairs, and the scale is distorted further when one of the aides brings Pentheus a baby carrot on a large silver tray while the other aide holds a miniature chandelier above him. The second act inverts the perspective, showing the audience a backstage view of the Bacchae lounging around and trading sex stories. Kara Golux' choreography, as well as the original music and a mood-inducing sound design by David Majzlin, also serve to complement the stage action.
It's a strong production, although not without flaws. The pacing of the second act starts to drag. Additionally, the final scene lacks the emotional power it should possess. However, the richly layered text and inventive staging go a long way toward making The Bacchae 2.1 an experience you won't soon forget.