Review: A Failure of Substance Over Style. ‘The Bacchae’ at La Mama.
Thomas Burns Scully
Greek Tragedy is a tough sell to a modern audience. There’s no shame in that. These plays were written several grandfathers before Jesus started grooving around. Since then we’ve had Joan of Arc, the Renaissance, half a dozen holocausts, Joseph Stalin, and Glee. Times have moved on a smidgen. Some of these plays stand the test of time well. ‘Oedipus Rex’ is universal shorthand for ‘Don’t try and cheat fate’, ‘Antigone’ warns us about the tyranny of government and the merits of forgiveness. With a little translating and tarting up, these shows can play the biggest theatre in the land. Others, have not done so well. Others such as, ‘The Bacchae’. Today, we examine Faux-Real’s staging of ‘The Bacchae’ at La Mama, directed by Mark Greenfield.
‘The Bacchae’ is a story we don’t really see these days outside of horror films. It concerns human beings directly bearing witness to the retribution of an actively interventionist god. In this case: Dionysus. He is affronted that the people of Thebes blaspheme his name and do not believe him to be a true son of Zeus. In particular, King Pentheus and his mother Agave. He takes revenge, a revenge which quickly builds and builds out of all proportion. He mesmerizes the women of the city, including Agave, and takes them to the hills to perform his ritual festivities. King Pentheus is outraged and refuses to let the people of the city take part. Dionysus takes human form and, with a bit of cajoling, is able to convince Pentheus to disguise himself as a women and infiltrate the festivities. Whereupon he is dismembered and killed by the women, and his mother parades his head around Thebes, believing it to be the head of a mountain lion. Gradually the spell is lifted, and she realizes what she has done. Everyone feels a bit silly in having doubted the existence of Dionysus. If you’re annoyed that there are spoilers here, grow up. This play is older than everyone you have ever spoken to.
‘The Bacchae’ has a central problem when communicated to a modern audience. I have already hinted at it: most of us don’t believe in an petty, spiteful, interventionist God or demigod anymore. Unless you’re the type to take every word of the Old Testament as scientific fact, and believe that the second coming is set for a week on Thursday. I assume this is not the case. Yet, the whole play is based around the idea that this would be a real and legitimate fear for you, and me, and everyone watching. Now, this obviously played pretty well in Greek times, but to a modern theatergoer, it is patently ridiculous. When everything about the show hinges on you, the audience member, believing that Dionysus is real and needs you to praise him or he will make your mother kill you, that’s a tough sell. Without significant alterations it essentially makes the play in to ‘The Big Short’, except instead of being about the housing market collapse, it’s about a demigod getting pissed at some Thebans. It is an explicit ‘To-The-Camera’ morality play, where the moral doesn’t register on any level.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the play can’t be done. After all, I like the ‘Evil Dead’ films, and the main threats in those are deadites (zombies) and the Necromonicon, neither of which I believe in, but both of which freak me out and entertain me when I watch. So, in theory, ‘The Bacchae’ could work for a modern audience, if reframed as a modern horror narrative. But Faux-Real don’t do that on a textual level. The writing feels like it’s playing up to a crowd that’s two-and-a-half millennia behind on it pop-culture tropes. They commit visually and stylistically to a sexy, horror aesthetic (the combined set, puppet and costume design work of Lynda White, Irina Gets, John Milano and co is exemplary), but are completely unwilling to compromise the written structure in any way. This is the production’s main failing. Monologue after dialectical, moralizing, mind-numbing monologue is directed at the audience, repeatedly halting the action and killing any pace. The handling of the chorus is particularly bad. Although these pieces were presented interestingly, ten girls speaking them in unison whilst performing movement pieces, they couldn’t keep in sync with one another. Their speech quickly became incomprehensible, and the audience was treated to an well-choreographed, but baffling, auditory mess. To the extent that I had to look up the Wikipedia plot summary when I got home, to check what I had missed.
There were a couple of saving graces. PJ Adzima as Pentheus was amazing. In a show that was dire, dull, and confusing, he shone through the fog like a ray of spectacular sunshine. He was able to find wit, charm, fun and precocity in a script where the rest of the cast found nothing but mud, sadness and a single solitary note on which rest their performances like a flacid metaphor. Also exempt from my ire is Fiona Robberson, playing Pentheus’ mother Agave. Her self-realization at the end of the play, and the sheer terror that came from it was stellar. Her work was mired only by the fact that the text she was speaking couldn’t live up to her performance. Some of the movement and puppetry work was also very good, illustrating select monologues as they were being spoken. If they had been presented sans text, they may have easily reached a degree of greatness.
None of these elements, however, were enough to save the show. Though they came close a few times. Even at a run time of seventy-five minutes, ‘The Bacchae’ felt long. That’s saying something. I’m not sure what translation and cut they are using, but it is not modern-audience friendly. Though the production is well-intentioned, and has several strong elements in its make-up, it has little visceral thrill and the pacing of an archeological dig. The monologues need to be ripped in half, the chorus needs tidying up, the movement needs to be pushed in lieu of text, and, most importantly, Adzima and Robberson need more stage-time. If anything, just to indulge the crushes I have developed on both of them. I wanted to be able to say that this show was a triumph of style over substance, but I can’t. It’s lack of substance quashes the budding sense of style underfoot. This iteration of ‘The Bacchae’ is failure of substance over style.
‘The Bacchae’ runs at La Mama until March 20th, it is produced by Faux-Real and directed by Mark Greenfield. Tickets are $18 regular, $13 for students and seniors. For tickets and information call 646-430-5374 or visit lamama.org. For more information see fauxreal.org.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)