FSU/Asolo Conservatory finds modern relevance in the classic story.
By Kay Kipling
As director Dmitry Troyanovsky says in his notes for this ancient play by Euripides, myths have to be retold and reinterpreted for every new generation. True enough—so if you go to the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s current production, be prepared: This is not your college classics professor’s Bacchae.
It is, instead, clearly a case of a director having a concept and running with it. While this production sticks to the original story (at least the broad outlines), it works to make us ask questions about the relevance of this particular myth for us today.
The play concerns the god Dionysus (Juan Javier Cardenas), who arrives in Thebes bent on vengeance because of the treatment his mother, Semele, received after becoming pregnant by the god Zeus—and because Thebes and his own mortal family have denied his godship. This Dionysus is not clad in Greek garb; he slinks onstage (a set of white walls and white floor that envelops us) all in black, looking very much the sort of gel-haired, androgynous pop idol who draws raving groupies (a Greek chorus of young women, who at times might also remind those of a certain generation of the Manson girls).
The groupies, of course, believe he’s a god; and Dionysus’ grandfather Kadmos (Brent Bateman) and the old, blind priest Teiresius (Marcus Denard Johnson) are also willing to partake of those orgiastic Bacchic rituals up on the mountain. But Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes (Matt Brown, who enters in tennis togs, racket in hand), is unwilling to accept Dionysus’ divinity—and, enticed by the sly stranger to spy on his own mother and sisters partying, will pay a heavy price for it.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll—for the Greeks, these elements may have had a religious dimension. Do they for us today? And whose side are we meant to be on—the sometimes petulant but undeniably magnetic Dionysus or the well-meaning but misguided Pentheus? In the end it doesn’t matter; the gods will have their way.
The director and his talented young cast hold our attention throughout the play (90 minutes with no intermission), sometimes amusing us and sometimes appalling us. Cardenas and Brown, especially, deliver compelling performances, but everyone in the piece plays their part well, aided greatly by the music of composer Rachel Peters, which ranges in style and sound (it’s sometimes haunting, sometimes chanting, at one point even a spiritual) and is central to the play’s success.
The Bacchae is onstage at the Asolo’s Cook Theatre through March 18; call 351-8000 or visit asolo.org.