The tale Euripides tells in The Bacchae is one of the most horrific in all of Greek drama. It is perhaps appropriate that this late work was not performed until after the playwright’s death; while it carried explicitly the politically correct message that people ought to worship the gods, it used a story whose graphic violence extends so widely that I wonder how the audience reacted to it. To cap it off, the body of Pentheus, teenage king of Thebes, brought down by his pride and unbelief, is left unburied – an unheard of breach of respect in ancient Greek culture and mythology.
Dionysus (Peter Oliver, center) with two of his Chorus boys (William Barnet, left, and Alexander Kveton, right). Photo by Hunter Canning
At the close of the new production by Femme Fatale Theater and the Queens Players, the bloody masses that are all that’s left of the dismembered Pentheus remain on stage as the lights go down, kept company only by the sole set piece, a small construction of twigs and candles representing the perpetually burning grave of Dionysus/Bacchus’s mother. The god in human guise, son of the ever-randy Zeus, has taken thorough revenge on the House of Thebes for denying his divinity.
Ensnared in Bacchus’s spell and endowed with superhuman powers, the women of Thebes use their bare hands as deadly weapons. The sharpest weapon used by director Robert Ribar (Femme Fatale’s artistic director) to make a modern entertainment of The Bacchae is humor. And in spite of the context of death and destruction and the old-fashioned language of the translation (“Make haste” indeed), it works, thanks to the clever flow of the key scenes and the skill of the cast. Describing the women’s ecstatic bacchic behavior on the mountain, and later reporting on Pentheus’s expedition to spy on it and grisly end, the two Messengers (John Graham and Harlan J. Alford) infuse their accounts with supercharged physical comedy that had last night’s audience in stitches.
John C. Hume plays old Tiresias rather like a blind Truman Capote, archly intelligent and aware of the weirdness, but wisely going with the flow. Stan Buturla by contrast is a dignified Cadmus brought to desperate grief at the end. That brings us to the play’s two avatars of preening youth: Peter Oliver’s scarily self-assured, goth-clad Dionysus, and Michael Axelrod’s diminutive Pentheus. The first takes everything calmly, sure of getting his way no matter what happens, growing more godlike and powerful until his final speech can be delivered only as a huge head on a screen. The latter only gets smaller and smaller as his crusade against the invasive new religion withers before the god’s power. It’s an effective duality.
Pentheus is hubris incarnate. For awhile Axelrod sticks to a mode of smarmy, frustrated pride that doesn’t show us much depth. But when the full import of the happenings on the mountain begins to dawn on him he breaks down, fleshes out a bit – and becomes an easy mark for the spell Dionysus seems to cast on him simply by asking if he’d like to actually see the women’s revels. This didn’t seem to me the most realistic choice for motivating Pentheus to the mountain, but the half-comic sweep of this sequence never flags so we’re carried along regardless. Less effective is Stacy Salvette’s overwrought Agave, Pentheus’s mother, enchanted into slaughtering her son and thinking, at first, that she’s bagged a tiger. Convincing in her grief, she bogs down her long emotional scene with mushy articulation.
On the whole the production is a solid and interesting Bacchae which, not incidentally, would be a funny, bloody, accessible introduction to Euripides for someone unfamiliar with ancient Greek drama. It runs through April 13 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City. Visit the Femme Fatale website for details and tickets, or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111.