A little bit Jesus Christ Superstar, a touch of Hamilton, a swish of Kinky Boots – that may give you some sense of this smashing new version of Euripides’ The Bacchae. From the pen of Bryan Doerries and the turbocharged engine of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, this modern retelling of the ancient Greek drama weaponizes Euripides with rock and rap, dance beats, and sensuous choreography.
As an adventurous dance sequence sets up the action, real fireflies criss-cross in front of the stage at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, as if electrified by the onstage energy.
There’s no firefly guarantee on any given evening. But you can count on a little human audience participation to help introduce this version’s Dionysus (Jason C. Brown) and draw you under his spell.
Overflowing with glam-R&B charisma, the God of the Grape has whipped the women of Thebes-Harlem into frenzies of ritual worship. The show retains Euripides’ story and structure, in which many events occur offstage and are related to us by the Chorus or messengers. But there’s no lack of action on stage, thanks to director Carl Cofield’s singing and rapping cast, Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s assured choreography performed by the Elisa Monte Dance Company, and Frederick Kennedy’s churning music.
Doerries’ conception resonates with our times in several ways, and not only artistically. If the theme of gender identity seems modern, that’s only because it’s so prevalent in today’s popular culture. In the original, King Pentheus dresses as a woman “merely” to stay incognito when he goes to spy on the women’s revels. Appropriately for our day, the production makes much of Pentheus’s (the excellent RJ Foster) transformation, internally even more than externally.
But as the sternly closed-minded King embraces his feminine side and evolves into something fabulous, tragedy is unspooling behind the scenes. There’s no happy ending for anyone here. In ancient Greek terms, the moral is that if a god shows up, you’d better worship him or her. In modern terms, as Doerries’ script has it, “Never should a man think himself above the law.”
Besides Brown and Foster, standouts among the solid cast include Gabrielle Djenné as a Chorus member who sings with a golden voice, and Andrea Patterson as Agave, whose relatively restrained reaction to discovering she’s killed her own son makes her woe all the more livid and deep.
With numerous references to current events, the show speaks directly to today’s resurgent populism and tyranny. Still, despite the tragedy (the Thebans’ and ours), there’s a hopeful sparkle to this whole stunning production. It comes from the spirit of collective art. Going to see this Bacchae at an open-air amphitheater, and grooving to its beats and its spectacle, provides a tonic for a battered soul, as well as a sense of history. The outdoor setting gives the audience something of the feel of an ancient amphitheater.
The production does takes advantage of modern theater’s technological trappings: sophisticated lighting, eye-catching projections, well-modulated amplification, electronic music (plus live electric guitar from Alicyn Yaffee). But’s it’s all in service of the story. And while these effects might have seemed unearthly to Euripides, he could have had no doubt of their purpose.
The Bacchae runs through July 28 at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park. Performances are free, Tuesdays through Sundays at 8:30 PM, part of the Classical Theatre of Harlem‘s 20th season.