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The Bacchae

Alan Cumming is adorable in the National Theatre of Scotland's grandly entertaining take on Euripides' tragedy. logo
Alan Cumming in The Bacchae
(© Richard Campbell)
According to historical records, Euripides died in 406 B.C. without seeing a production of his late play The Bacchae. But I wonder if he would even recognize his text as it's been loosely and amusingly jimmied by director John Tiffany, assistant director and choreographer Steven Hogget, and dramatist David Greig, who prepared the National Theatre of Scotland's version of The Bacchae, which has opened the Lincoln Center Festival. This threesome has imagined the tragedy more as a dark comedy -- even as a vaudeville -- yet watching it unfold before Miriam Buether's undulant grey walls and under Colin Grenfell's brilliant lighting, you think that Euripides would have had a grand time sitting through this interpretation.

He'd have loved it from the get-go, when Dionysus (Alan Cumming) is lowered head first out of the fly until he's flat on his stomach facing the audience in a shimmering gold lame tunic and with a puckish look on his oval face. Cumming has played this brand of mocking bad boy before -- notably his Master of Ceremonies in the 1998 revival of Cabaret and his Mack the Knife in the most recent Threepenny Opera reprise -- and he's adorable much of the time as he roams about the stage spouting Greig's colloquial lines. Yet, he can just as quickly become terrifying under his Cher wig when Euripides has Dionysus' mood change to vengeance and wrath.

Dionysus arrives in Thebes, where the play is set, with a Greek chorus of Maenads, and is often called upon to front musical numbers. Cumming is always jovially up for this kind of romp, as are the back-up troupe he summons, who aren't just any old all-singing-all-dancing girls. They're nine stunning black women of various shapes and sizes dressed in flowing shades-of-red gowns, who sensually throw themselves wholeheartedly into pianist Tim Sutton's rhythm-and-blue-oriented threnodies.

But what does all this have to do with the play Euripides set out to write? Dionysus, fathered by Zeus with Theban woman Semele, was carried away by his dad at his mum's almost instant post-coital death. Returning to his hometown as a human, he's denied god status by the city's autocratic ruler Pentheus (a slick Cal MacAninch) -- a public dissing that upsets Dionysus so much he dresses the willing Pentheus as a Maenad and sends him to the hills to watch the Theban women cavort in Dionysus worship just like Bacchae themselves.

There, Pentheus comes to a bad end at the hands of his mother Agave (the very histrionic Paola Dionisotti), who returns holding Pentheus' head aloft and celebrating her bloody deed until her father Cadmus (the equally histrionic Ewan Hooper) forces her to recognize her son. Then she and Cadmus keen, while Dionysus' own Bacchae chant, "You can't choose the gods that you worship/You just have to worship them all."

If you go by the program notes Greig and essayist Simon Goldhill provide, the creative team would have it that Dionysus' appearance in shift-shaping form carries universal meaning. They'd also suggest the play conjures shock and awe to make the point that humanity needs to credit all higher powers. Perhaps that's true -- and even healing in a world riven by religious fanatics. But a close watch of The Bacchae casts some doubt on such a far-reaching interpretation and smacks more of theater professionals trying to trumpet the comic-drama's relevance to today; and in doing so, creating something grandly entertaining.

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