WSC Avant Bard The BacchaeBy Bob Ashby • May 16th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
WSC Avant Bard
Artisphere, Arlington, VA
Through July 1st
90 minutes without intermission
Reviewed May 13th, 2012
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods–They kill us for their sport.” Gloucester’s line from King Lear could well serve as an epigraph for Euripides’ The Bacchae, as Dionysus, a wanton boy of a god if ever there was, vengefully kills his cousin Pentheus in a way he finds highly entertaining. The play insists on the triumph of irrationality and violence over reason and order.
The ruling family of Thebes incurs Dionysus’ wrath by denying his divine parentage. An androgynous–not to say polymorphously perverse–man-god, Dionysus (Jeremy Pace) begins his revenge by touching the local population with riotous, out-of-control sexuality, including wild women who take to the hills where they lead insane, bestial lives. In the Dionysian world, irrationality reigns supreme, especially among women, and the primal fear of unbridled female sexuality as a threat to male-ordered society is a deep thread throughout the play.
For the chorus, entwined with him and one another, Dionysus is a leader of debauched revels. For those who cross him, he is an implacable, irresistible, and utterly merciless foe. Pace plays the god with sinuous sensuality, complete with tats and piercings, coolly exercising his power with complete, smug confidence. He is a bit too cool at times to fully convey the awe and terror a god inspires, getting his way through seductiveness and manipulation more than through divine force of will.
Dionysus’ primary foil is his cousin Pentheus (Elliot Kashner), King of Thebes, who insists on rationality and the rule of human law to the point of attempting to ban the cult of Dionysus. Bad career move. The god lures him into the woods, where he is torn to pieces by the crazed crowd of women.
Pentheus’ downfall results from his inability to understand the awesome power of irrationality and the impotence of mere men in the face of divine majesty. Kashner plays Pentheus in a stiff, somewhat callow way, emphasizing his unthinking arrogance while giving insufficient emphasis to the case he has to make for reason and order.
No disrespect to Pace or Kashner, but the chorus is the star of this production. Any Greek chorus comments on the actions of the principals and enacts the emotions of the people of the city to the play’s events. This production’s chorus goes further, singing their lines to Mariano Vales’ original songs and dancing to Aysha Upchurch’s active and arresting choreography, by turns sexually alluring and threatening. The singing and movement aptly convey the feeling and meaning of each moment, and the show avoids the potential pitfall of becoming Dionysus: The Musical.
The chorus is literally the central element of the Director Steven Scott Mazzloa’s well-conceived production, The main set unit is a long, low, relatively narrow rectangular platform, placed between two parallel banks of seats. For the most part, the chorus occupies the platform, reacting vividly to the words and actions of the named characters, who are typically blocked at one end or the other of the rectangle or circle its periphery. A particularly nice touch is the use of several chorus members as musicians to accompany the singing. The musicians are themselves singers and actors who blend into the chorus on occasions when they are not playing their instruments. At times, the chorus provides the percussion beat by slapping their bodies or the stage.
In typical Greek tragedy fashion, the most violent action happens off stage, and it is left to messengers to bring the terrible news to those affected by it. Frank Britton provides an ominous description the conduct of the women in the wild, and Jim Jorgensen does a particularly expressive job of telling the terrible tale of Pentheus’ death to Pentheus’ grandfather, Cadmus (Theodore M. Snead), who accepts the loss and the destruction of his family with sorrowful dignity. The most tragic figure is that of Agave, Pentheus’ mother (MiRan Powell). Maddened by the god, she has led the mob that tore her son asunder. When she regains her reason and understands what she has done, she is inconsolable with grief and guilt as she goes into exile. Powell is riveting as she copes with the consequences of her actions.
The chorus costumes are mostly subdued earth tones. Pentheus wears a black uniform, except when Dionysus gets him to dress in what the script refers as female garb, but which looks more like something from a colorful toga party. Dionysus himself ends the show in a white suit, natty but scarcely godlike. There is a strong prop moment near the end of the show, when Dionysus speaks, with amplified power this time, in the guise of a large god mask, the pieces of which are operated by several chorus members. The pre- and post-show soundscapes were a combination of water and urban sounds, the relationship of which to the remainder of the show was unclear (though seeming to bear a closer relationship to the program cover showing a suited man in a Metro tunnel).
What makes this play difficult for a modern audience, I think, is that its outcome has little to do with any concept of justice we would recognize, or even with the idea that “character is fate.” The notion that terrifying consequences attend disobedience to mysterious and capricious powers that rule the universe might well have seemed less strange to an audience of Euripidies’ day. Nicholas Rudall, the translator of the very fluid and accessible version of the play chosen for this production, has commented that, at the time of the play’s writing, “Athens is dying. It is the end of the Peloponnesian War. Rational democratic government has failed….[In portraying] the inadequacy of rational human government in the face of the ecstatic Irrationality of Dionysus…,the play is about the inadequacy of human response to the incomprehensible. It is about the necessity of submission and the futility of resistance to divine power. It is finally, and perhaps prophetically, about the imminence of destruction.” Given the history of the last 100 years, a classical play about the power and destructiveness of irrationality may not be so far removed from our reality as we would like to believe.
I had the opportunity to see the production in previews last Sunday (it opened officially Monday night). The show ran smoothly, and I expect it will be in top-notch form when it begins its full run on May 19th.
Photos by Kristina Sherk
- Anna Brungardt
- James Finley
- Kari Ginsburg
- Chistin Green
- Behzad Habibzai
- Heather Haney
- Jon Jon Johnson
- Jase Parker
- JR Russ
- Mundy Spears
- Dionysus: Jeremy Pace
- Teiresias: Manolo Santalla
- Cadmus: Theodore M. Snead
- Pentheus: Elliott Kashner
- A Herdsman: Frank Britton
- A Slave: Jim Jorgensen
- Agave: MiRan Powell
- Director: Steven Scott Mazzola
- Original Composition: Mariano Vales
- Choreographer: Aysha Upchurch
- Scenic Designer: Jessica Moretti
- Lighting Designer: Jason Aufdem-Brinke
- Costume Designer: Melanie Clark
- Sound Designer: David Crandall
- Musical Director: Mariano Vales
- Godhead Puppet Designers: Betsy Rosen, Eric Brooks
- Props Designer: Kristen Pilgrim
- Dramaturg: Alan Jay Katz
- Stage Manager: Maggie Clifton
- Assistant Stage Manager: Autumn Boyle
- Technical Director/Master Carpenter: Jason Krznarich
- Master Electrician: Alex F. Keen
- Scenic Artist: Betsy Muller
- Assistant Technical Director: Nate Kurtz
- Electricians: Sarah Mackowski, Alexander Henry, Cathryn Salisbury-Valerien, Molly Scrivens, Jonathan Hudspeth, Amanda Demczuk
- Director/Editor ‘Behind the Scenes’: Keegan Cassady
Disclaimer: WSC Avant Bard provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8090.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.