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Karaoke Bacchae

Meta-Phys Ed. offers a dizzying spin on a 2,400-year-old play for Ice Factory 2015.

Tim Craig and James Tigger! Ferguson lead the cast of Karaoke Bacchae, directed by Jesse Freedman, at the New Ohio Theatre.
(© Jenny Sharp)

"It's eventful art," the God Dionysus tells us in Karaoke Bacchae, distinguishing his namesake "Dionysic" [sic] art from its Apollonian counterpart. While Dionysian art usually involves an event fleeting and unpredictable, Apollonian art is clear in its intent from the beginning and tends to last a lot longer. Of course, the mystery and irrationality surrounding Eurpides' The Bacchae (perhaps the greatest theatrical celebration of Dionysian art) seems to be the very thing that has led to its immortality. Granted, like Dionysus in disguise, it comes in many forms.

Karaoke Bacchae is Meta-Phys Ed's entry in this year's Ice Factory Festival of experimental work at the New Ohio Theatre. It is based on Euripides' ever-controversial origin story of the God Dionysus and the staid political leader who opposes his worship. Writer and director Jesse Freedman puts a new twist on the tale, rejoicing in the Dionysian sprit as it persists through modernity.

The adaptation takes place in a divey sports bar on karaoke night (convincingly created by set designer Michael Minahan using the preexisting basement rec-room aesthetic of the New Ohio). Dionysus (James Tigger! Ferguson) and his entourage of Bacchic sorority sisters want to rock-and-roll all night, but bar proprietor Pentheus (a tightly wound Tim Craig with a blank killer's gaze) is having none of it. The Stanley Cup is on and even if it weren't he wouldn't tolerate their raucous antics. No matter how many times he throws them out, however, they miraculous keep coming back for more.

The action is underscored by some of the greatest karaoke classics including "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Proud Mary," and, of course, the indispensable "Don't Stop Believin'." The characters sing along with highlighted karaoke tracks (projected on the back wall in Aaron Minderbrook's disorienting video design) when they're not fighting or vomiting in the corner. Everyone is really drunk.

Tigger! turns out to be the perfect master of ceremonies for this debauchery. New York's own Dionysus, Tigger! (as he's known in the city's boylesque scene) has long reigned supreme (seeing him naked in a bar always augers well for a successful night out). His impish Dionysus has a terrifying and erratic edge, as when he shouts an angry drunken voicemail into his iPhone, causing the whole room to shake. He makes us believe that the spirit of Dionysus really stumbles among us.

Like a millennial Charles Mee, Freedman includes text from disparate sources, including Iggy Pop's infamously sloppy interview with Tom Synder (made eerily coherent by Tigger!) and Rebecca Martinson's epic e-mail dressing-down of her sorority sisters (the Bacchantes assault us with their plosives on the phrase "c*nt punt").

Karaoke Bacchae sometimes feels like the ultimate inside joke for a handful of drama students. It assumes a basic knowledge of Euripides' tale on the part of the audience, leaving us to fill in the gaps when their clever take does not (do your homework for this one). Large swathes of the text are rendered unintelligible by D.R. Baker's aggressive sound design and the actors' slurred diction. All of this would be supremely frustrating in most other plays, but…it's The Bacchae. What did you expect: a neat, sober, thoroughly choreographed event? No one wants to see Robert Wilson's Bacchae. That would miss the point entirely.

Freedman, on the other hand, strikes right at the heart of the drunken, uncontrolled, and occasionally rageful aura of the god of wine and theater. Blink and you'll miss it (final performance July 25), but should you snag a ticket — your memories of the event will last forever.