We’ll never know exactly how ancient Greek audiences experienced plays like Euripides’ The Bacchae 2,500 years ago. Thankfully, not only are these works still staged, theater companies endeavor through varying formulae of scholarship and enthusiasm to give us approximations or suggestions of the original vibe. The Faux-Real Theater Company‘s rollicking new production of The Bacchae digs into the tribal roots of this, the ultimate cautionary tale, with just the collective animal energy called for.
Mesmerized by the magic of the new god Dionysus, the women of Thebes have joined in ritualistic worship, eventually taking to the mountain for an orgiastic blood-hunt, tearing apart their livestock with divinely empowered bare hands. Under Mark Greenfield’s tight direction, and supported by three unseen musicians playing mostly percussion, the bacchantes dart and swoon through their incantatory speeches in frightening unison. The technique makes it hard to decipher a lines here and there, especially when the whole group chants at once, but the story comes forcefully through.
The energy of those unison scenes carries through to the personal drama. The disbelieving young king Pentheus (an electric PJ Adzima) imprisons the prophet – Dionysus in mortal guise – who has brought the disruptive new religion to the city. Consumed by curiosity, the stubborn king agrees with the god’s logic – and, as staged here, the sensual allure – of dressing as a woman to go and spy on the Bacchae at their murderous rites. Pentheus’s death and beheading at the hands of his entranced mother Agave (Fiona Robberson) are staged cleverly and gorily in a climactic scene that exemplifies the impressively coordinated blocking of a big cast on a small stage.
My only significant complaint is the switch to a drastically slower pace for the long dénouement. Agave’s grief as her father Cadmus draws her out of Dionysus’s spell need not take so long to convey. And the play’s main moral – worship the gods or they will ruin you and your entire family – would be just as well conveyed if its three or four potential final scenes were paced faster.
Still, we’re left with a visceral feel for the “red in tooth and claw” fundamentals of human nature. The weird natural-man portrayal by Tony Naumovksi (who is also the music director) of the blind seer Tiresias helps set up the cultic mystique. It’s furthered by the beautiful masks by Lynda White, the earthy costumes by Irina Gets, the tribalistic music, the grandiose pomposity of the jealous god himself (Andrew Bryce), and above all, the scarily united Bacchae themselves. Greenfield has coaxed from this bevy of women a terrifying power.
All these elements combine to make the meat of the production a divine thrill. It reminded me that there’s an upcoming Broadway revival of The Crucible. These ancient stories and fears, retold in new forms in every culture and with every century, lurk always in our collective memory. Art like this, together with the awareness of history it provokes, reminds us we’d do well not to bury them so deep that they fester. (From our mouths to the gods’ ears.)
The Bacchae runs through March 20 at La MaMa. Tickets are available at LaMama.org or 646-430-5374.