What would Euripides say about the liberties being taken with his tragedies in New York? Medea,one of his last and most-produced plays, has been turned into the harrowing tale of an undocumented immigrant to Corona, Queens at the Public Theater. The Bacchae, one of his first tragedies, never performed during his lifetime, has become an entertaining pop, rock and hip-hop spectacular in an outdoor amphitheater in Harlem.
The Classic Theatre of Harlem has mounted The Bacchae free to the public at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, in a version by Bryan Doerries. It would be hard to argue that it brings home the full force or horror that is the usual province of Ancient Greek tragedy. But what is a better tribute to the play’s principal character Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, wine…and theater, than a theatrical production with such intoxicating singing, dancing and design.
The program describes both the plot and the theme of the play succinctly: “Freedom, Ecstasy, Anarchy vs. Law, Order and Control…who wins? Rather, who survives?”
Dionysus arrives at the City of Thebes, bent on revenge. He is disguised as the charismatic Preacher D (portrayed by the charismatic performer Jason C. Brown, wearing shoulder length dreadlocks) and he turns all the local women ecstatic. This doesn’t sit well with Pentheus (R.J. Foster), the new King of Thebes, a law and order man, who tries to imprison Dionysus and his followers, who are known as the Bacchants. (Dionysus’ Roman name is Bacchus.)
“We will run them down from the hill and lock them up. We will build a wall and put a quick end to this mess!” – one of several overly obvious expressions of political relevance.
Dionysus resents Pentheus, who is his first cousin, as well as the rest of his family, for denying Dionysus’ divinity. He is the offspring of Semele (mortal daughter of Cadmus, the first king of Thebes) and Zeus, the king of all the gods, who struck Semele with a lightning bolt, which is apparently how Greek gods impregnate mortals. But Dionysus’ three aunts, especially Pentheus’ mother Agaue (Andrea Patterson), scoffed at their sister. “They told everyone that my mother got knocked up by some Negro selling twizzlers on the six train,” Dionysus says (an infusion of Harlem that works better than the contemporary political allusions). “They disrespected my mother.”
And so Dionysus sets off a series of events that result in some gruesome atrocities.
In a moment of hallucinatory ecstasy, thinking she is threatened by a bull, Agaue decapitates her own son, and puts his head in a box.
The Bacchae was Doerries’ first translation of a Greek tragedy, when he was still in college, and it convinced him to change his intended career from Classics scholar to theater artist, as he recounts in his excellent 2015 book “The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.” As the founding artistic director of Theater of War Productions, he has spent more than a decade touring with newly translated Greek tragedies for modern times, as an effort to heal communities; a recent and much-produced example is Antigone in Ferguson
Theater of War presented a production of The Bacchae “in drug-ravaged towns in Appalachia” – presumably provoking a discussion among the audiences about the downside of excess; the importance of moderation.
It is more difficult to discern such a clearcut message in the Classical Theater of Harlem’s production of The Bacchae. The audience isn’t repelled by the extremism on both sides. The production seems to focus more on sexual empowerment. Dionysus is all hip-swivel swagger, a pansexual rock star dressed in Lex Liang’s
all-black costume complete with codpiece and bustier. At one point Dionysus kisses Pentheus, who spits in disgust. Later, Dionysus tricks Pentheus into dressing in women’s clothes and a colorful wig, a scene that is played for humor, but underneath the comedy is an unmistakable comment on straight fear of enjoying drag.
I attended The Bacchae on a night when it so threatened rain that the staff of CTH, including the show’s director Carl Cofield and the theater’s producing artistic director Ty Jones, were wiping down the seats – presumably to dry them of condensation from the humidity, but I imagined they were performing a kind of ritual against the rain…and it worked. That kind of loving care is manifested in the show itself – in Frederick Kennedy’s infectious score, in Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s slinky and exciting choreography of the Elisa Monte Dancers, in the set designed by twin brothers Christopher Swader and Justin Swader of a three-story industrial scaffold that serves as a flexible platform for the terrific 13-member cast of actors, all with beautifully trained voices both singing and speaking. It’s only seventy minutes long, but, under the surprisingly clear skies of a summer night in Harlem, The Bacchae feels like a full, satisfying evening of theater. Surely Euripides would be happy