The Bacchae

JoAnne Akalaitis’ Shakespeare in the Park staging of Euripides’ Greek tragedy is compelling.

Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackiein The Bacchae
(© Joan Marcus)
Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackie
in The Bacchae
(© Joan Marcus)

For Greek audiences, Euripides’ The Bacchae, now being presented at the Delacorte Theatre as the second summer installment of the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park series, would have sent a chilling message about the ways in which the Gods could exact retribution for disbelief. Today, in front of an audience filled with people from a variety of religious — and nonreligious — backgrounds, that’s a rather difficult precept to deliver. Yet in JoAnne Akalaitis’ measured and often compelling staging, the play’s still-timely message about the danger of going to extremes is brought strikingly to life.

In The Baccahce, the demigod Dionysus (Jonathan Groff) goes to rather drastic lengths to make the people of Thebes recognize his divinity. The Thebans’ disbelief that he is a God at all stems from the lies that have been spread about Dionysus’ heritage: his aunt Agave (Joan MacIntosh) and her son Pentheus (a commanding Anthony Mackie) , who’s now king of Thebes, have claimed since his mother’s death in childbirth that she had an affair with a mortal rather than Zeus.

So Dionysus has returned to Thebes to right this wrong, and until the citizenry is allowed to worship him, he’s driven the women into a mad frenzy. They’ve retreated to the mountains outside the city where they are indulging in a wild bacchanalia and ignoring their wifely and motherly duties.

Groff’s pouty and haughty Dionysus is a model of androgynous sexuality. At the same time, Dionysus’ fury with the city and his actions show him as a superlatively vindictive god. His cousin Pentheus is a mirror of this sort of absolutism. He has corralled the revelers and imprisoned them for their actions; and he also manages to briefly capture Dionysus. Ultimately, though Dionysus convinces Pentheus to join the revelers dressed as a woman — with tragic results, which are reported by a messenger (Rocco Sisto, showing grave passion).

But the greatest tragedy belongs to the spellbound Agave, who returns to the city proudly holding her son’s head, announcing that she has killed a young lion. It’s a horrific moment, made all the more so by MacIntosh’s fierce commitment to the woman’s wild delusion.

Agave’s dementia stuns as compared to the refinement of the other women revelers, portrayed as a Greek chorus, who gorgeously intone Philip Glass’ majestic, dissonant melodies that are beautifully fitted to the lyrics in Nicholas Rudall’s elegant translation. This group also performs David Neumann’s precise choreography, which is filled with visual references to East Asian dance. (Their sequences, as well as the entire production, are lit with atmospheric eeriness by Jennifer Tipton.)

For all their intensity, there is nevertheless a certain control to the choral sections of The Bacchae that indicates acceptance rather than reactionary measures is what’s called for in the face of Dionysus’ presence in Thebes. The same can be said of George Bartenieff’s dignified portrayal of Cadmus, Agave’s father and the former ruler of Thebes, and Andre DeShields’ terrifically understated turn as the blind prophet Teiresias.

John Conklin’s scenic design, an arc of bleachers that’s backed by jutting beams, suggests the rubble at the World Trade Center. Indeed, this visual only reinforces one’s sense that The Bacchae remains a call to moderation in the face of the incomprehensible.