I know it’s been a while since I threw down a bona-fide review around these parts. So I’m breaking silence with some thoughts on The Bacchae, which wraps up its run The Public Theater’s Shakespeare In The Park this week. (Warning: this may fall more under “rant”.)
It’s also been a while since I had been to one of the Delacorte shows. Getting older leaves you less zest for pulling an all-nighter at The Works (now closed (sad face)) and stumbling over to be one of the first people in line on Central Park West at 3am, just to get tickets to see Meryl Streep in “The Seagull”; although, it was totally worth it just to see her do a cartwheel on stage.
At any rate, this year’s Virtual Line made it easy for the old folks (hit “send” when the Mac strikes midnight) to get in, so I drug myself up to Central Park to check out what a friend of mine said he “wished I had seen”. He later clarified that he was just curious about my opinion, and wasn’t really recommending that I see it. Hmm…
Well, I suppose I would categorize this show under the old-artists-got-picked-to-do-a-big-gig-together-and-no-one-pushed-them-to-do-better-work category (I’ve still got my eye on you, Trish). The wafts of arrogance this production exudes is troubling. Not blatant arrogance—although, there is plenty of that in Jonathan Groff’s petulant Dionysus—but the “we’re great artists and don’t we know it, and the public won’t know any better” kind of arrogance; casual; comfortable; like a nice pair of orthopedic shoes.
But when we go to the theater, we don’t want orthopedic shoes. We want riveting ideas, and risk-taking gestures. We want to be pushed (although, not necessarily physically pushed, Ms. Young). We want to know that the artists are pushing us, and themselves, to the level beyond where we are. We want the art to be in front of us, so, by going to it, we are taken to a new place. This production fell far back and behind what we know about theater and what we know about ourselves. It eschewed the central subject of the play with demure stereotyping and philosophical meandering. (In case you’re wondering, the central subject of the play is Dionysus: The god of drinking and fucking.) And along the way, presented us with several examples of exactly how not to use drag and homosexuality in the service of constructing a heterodoxic narrative.
What director JoAnne Akalaitis was thinking when she conceived this piece is beyond me (I’ll get to details when I get to them). For help, I looked to the program notes. Sometimes, you just have to.
In the notes, Nicholas Rudall, who made the translation for this production, is quoted as saying, “The Bacchae is a play rich in themes, and one of its most disturbing is the inadequacy of rational human government in the face of the ecstatic irrationality of Dionysus…The Bacchae is, in the end, a document of human folly. Dionysus lacks mercy. And to assume that human wisdom and human rationality are forces that can resist him is a monumental mistake.”
Umm, wrong. The folly at the heart of The Bacchae is irrational resistance to the libido; specifically. Dionysus, as the living god of the libido, demands that everyone acknowledge him, or else face grave consequence. This is a timeless theme, and is the exact opposite of the prevailing Judeo-Christian paranoid morality that warns at every impetus the perils of indulging sexual and festive impulses. And Ms. Akalaitis—in tandem, I assume on some level at least, with Mr. Rudall—has missed an enormous opportunity to address here a very tangible stress on our current American culture, which is that of the politics surrounding teen sex and HIV/AIDS.
Under the policies of the previous Presidential administration, which flouted pseudo-Christian abstinence-only initiatives over rational sexual education, this country saw, for the first time in two decades, a rise in teen pregnancy rates and STD infections.
Also, there is currently this ridiculous measure on the health care reform docket that would make circumcision routine for American boys as a “precaution” to limit the spread of HIV. Let alone the classist lean here (the measure would disproportionately affect the less educated), it’s simply crazy to promote amputating a part of the male body (which, incidentally, is designed with the chief goal of providing pleasure and mechanical facility during intercourse) to prevent a disease that could virtually be eradicated through proper education.
By asserting that Euripides’ complaint is against rationalism, Rudall reverses the lesson of The Bacchae, the primary paradox of which is that the irrationality (the sensual activities) that Bacchus promotes is ultimately rational and for the good of people, and not for the ruin of “rational” human governance, which, according to Euripides, in this instance, is far from rational.
For these misunderstandings, and for the hodge-podge eclecticism of the production at hand, JoAnne Akalaitis’ “Bacchae” is basically illegible.
She casts Bacchus as a posing wannabe rocker, whose attitude and airs represent less Dionysian indulgence than they do the bland superficial personae of American-Idol-made faux rock stars—this is no Sid Vicious or Patti Smith. The few times young Mr. Groff grabs a vintage mike and croons in falsetto fall flat and forced; not necessarily because of his performance (which is capable, if somewhat lacking depth), but because the directorial choice feels condescending and not thought out.
In the opening, as the audience chubbles (see Shari Goldhagen) to their seats, Mr. Groff enters with a suitcase and a rucksack, red lipstick smeared across his cheek, and has apparently been directed to make a coy, weak nod to the theater by pulling out various costumes and trying them on before us. At one point, he holds up a purple dress (yes, it will come back) and gives the Oooo, aren’t I naughty look. Finally, he drops trou and throws on a pair of blue jeans and a leather jacket (such a rebel, this one), and he is transformed –by the magic of theater!—into our Dionysus.
During his opening, earnest monologue, we get the parade of characters, milling about on an operatic amphitheater (designed by John Conklin) that peals out of the ground in an arching wave made of slender steel beams.
The female chorus, which often doubles as The Bacchants (or, the followers of Dionysus) is dressed—as if in cantilever to an entirely different production—in orange iridescent, vaguely Indian jumpsuits. It is impossible not to notice that the chorus is heavily stacked with women of color. Characterizing the lascivious Bacchants as generally dark-skinned was problematic to begin with. Then take into account the several times they are instructed literally to hiss and claw at various party-pooping Thebans, and we have ourselves a classic stereotype of the “exotic” dark-skinned woman. Throw in a nice African drum beat (I didn’t know Philip Glass did world-music eclecticism) just for fun, and you can pretty much burry this corpse.
To cast the chorus (which, if not always playing The Bacchants, is always on the side of Dionysus) as a harem of Indian Subcontinental tribal ladies who fall at the feet of a 21st century white American teenage rocker defies all logic while trouncing any vestige of social conscience.
The chorus—if we are to accept that Dionysus would become self-incarnate through one of the Jonas Brothers—should have been cast as a screaming chorus of teen groupies, the kind that would throw their virginity to the wind for even of hope of getting backstage. Or make it more adult, and have the chorus be real groupies; hard-core, alcohol swigging, spread-legged ladies of the road. They know a lot more about Dionysus than our own racist fantasies about African and Eastern women.
At any rate, choices like this ruin The Bacchae, and get to the heart of what was always bad about Bogartian post-modernism. Eclecticism isn’t problematic in itself. It’s when the choices seem unhinged from a consistent creative point of view, or worse, ironic stereotypes of various “cultures”, that this kind of theater comes to a screeching halt.
It also occurred to me during the show that the youngest generation of theater-makers (I include many dance artists in this) seems not at all to be interested in this kind of process. The majority of young theater seems rounded, whole, entirely conceived, and without any of these imposed and bulky aesthetic rifts. Today’s young artists seem more inclined to trust in the subjective hand of creation; in the salient, total usability of their lives, without parsing them through the lens of identity politics, or, in the case The Bacchae and productions like it: Identity aesthetics.
This last term shares a lot of blame for another out-of-date tactic Akalaitis reaches for in this production; that of using heterdoxic stereotypes of queerness to further the dramatic narrative.
Euripides’ late play actually creates a legitimate window of opportunity for the representation of onstage homosexual activity. Although, to be clear, it would seem more to favor the representation of female homosexuality (finally, lesbians!).
But Akalaitis’s Bacchae shies away from that option, opting, instead, to insinuate the more threatening, degrading and ultimately fatal stereotypes of male homosexuality. This happens when the nefarious specter of gay lust is conjured by Dionysus as a ploy to lure the doubting Pantheus into a deathtrap. It isn’t just that here, Bacchus designs a plan to get Pantheus to disguise himself as a woman (re-enter the purple dress!) so he can visit the secret horde of Bacchants (which is actually part of the play and, presumably was meant, even in ancient Greece, to humiliate the male character), but Akalaitis directs the two actors to invent a homoerotic charge during the seduction. It comes out of nowhere, and its only point is to titillate while ultimately perceiving the attraction as false and bad news.
The other giveaway is that this is the only part of the score where Philip Glass writes anything remotely dissonant. Ugh, it’s just the worst! And two seconds before this, I was like, Hey, I never realized how much of a modernist Glass is, in the sense that no matter what is happening subjectively onstage, the music sounds pretty much the same. But then this! I mean, falling back on the cinematic cooption of atonal music to represent horror and psychological friction—a tactic held over from the sturm und drang Romantics—is just gross.
It was like watching the Greek version of “Cruising”, and with The Rambles so nearby, one couldn’t help but scoff at the irony. The fact that The Public is selling shirts that read “Cross Dressing In The Park” is both offensive and un-self-aware, specifically in light of this production.
But one punch, at least, that The Bacchae does not pull, is its treatment of gore. In solid American fashion, the sexual content is muted, while the violence is amped up to the hilt. A fantastic decapitated (and scalped?) head of Pentheus is dragged out triumphantly by Joan Macintosh playing Agave, his mother. It’s just dripping with blood, and Ms. Macintosh’s wild-eyed performance is pitch-perfect. Granpappy Cadmus (played well by George Bertenieff) drags out a bloody sheet that barely tethers together the severed limbs of the young king. And when Agave pulls out one hand, then one leg, from the jumbled mess, it’s simply awesome.
This, and a riveting monologue delivered moments before by Rocco Sisto (met with due applause from the audience), are the only parts in Bacchae that soared, and are—not coincidentally—the only parts where Ms. Akalaitis and Mr. Glass got out of the way of the play.
But when Dionysus returns to issue his final scorn upon the foolish Theban royals, we’re back in la-la land. Bacchus, unable to show mercy, ultimately comes off as a spoiled brat, overfed with fantasies of his own self-worth, who demands attention and then starts killing people when they don’t give it to him.
For my part, that is not the Dionysus I know and worship.
I just don’t get why this happens so much in the professional, big-stage arts. There is no shortage of money here. So that’s no excuse (and, by the way, that is a completely legitimate excuse for emerging artists). Is the problem curatorial? Is it institutional? Is it generational?
Even here, David Neumann, whose work Feedforward at DTW was one of my favorite events of 2007, seemed to have been uninspired, contributing what amounted to elegant but obvious interpretive dance for the chorus. The only moment that struck me at all as recognizable Neumann was when Cadmus and the prophet Teiresias (played with delightful passion by Andre de Shields) clucked their heads and stamped their feet as they prepared for the feast of Dionysus. More, please.
I mean, what will it take? For me to offer The Public Theater to direct one of their shows next summer, free of charge? Fine, then!
Dear Mr. Eustis:
I hereby volunteer to direct a play for your Shakespeare In The Park festival during the summer of 2010, free of charge. You pick the play, I’ll show up. You’ll save money, and you won’t come out with anything worse than the trainwreck that is The Bacchae. I promise.
I can be reached by email at email@example.com. Or, you can just confirm our agreement in the comments field below.
The Counter Critic