Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Bacchae


By Euripides. Translated by Nicholas Rudall. Directed by Joanne Akalytis. At Shakespeare in the Park (Delacorte Theater). (CLOSED)

With all of New York's major reviewers rating the show a C or below, The Bacchae is lucky that we here at CoM don't weight based on prominence of a review's outlet. The chief complaint is that the wildness of the Bacchae (both the play and the ferocious mad women it gets its name from) has been tamed and domesticated. General consensus (with some exceptions) centers around praise for the translation, Jennifer Tipton's light design, Anthony Mackie's Pentheus and the supporting performances. There's also a general consensus that Jonathan Groff is either miscast or not quite up to playing a role as savage as Bacchus. Conflicts arise over Philip Glass' score and the treatment of the Chorus (particularly where Kaye Voyce's costumes are concerned). Rocco Sisto's messenger speech is singled out ever by the haters for its power.

(Jennifer Farrar) JoAnne Akalaitis and Philip Glass apply their considerable talents to interpreting the Nicholas Rudall translation of this ancient tragedy with relevance for a 21st century audience. A strong cast, eerie choreography, and lively special effects enrich the music-laden, occasionally humorous tale of power struggles, hubris and the futility of resistance to change....Even at just 90 minutes in length, the production leaves the audience emotionally drained, pondering the ancient message that man is essentially powerless against forces he cannot control.

TheaterMania B+
(Andy Propst) In JoAnne Akalaitis' measured and often compelling staging, the play's still-timely message about the danger of going to extremes is brought strikingly to life.... the greatest tragedy belongs to the spellbound Agave, who returns to the city proudly holding her son's head, announcing that she has killed a young lion. It's a horrific moment, made all the more so by MacIntosh's fierce commitment to the woman's wild delusion. Agave's dementia stuns as compared to the refinement of the other women revelers, portrayed as a Greek chorus, who gorgeously intone Philip Glass' majestic, dissonant melodies that are beautifully fitted to the lyrics in Nicholas Rudall's elegant translation. This group also performs David Neumann's precise choreography, which is filled with visual references to East Asian dance. (Their sequences, as well as the entire production, are lit with atmospheric eeriness by Jennifer Tipton.)

Financial Times B
(Brendan Lemon) Glass's minimalism is a relief after so many recent Bacchae productions (that of the National Theatre of Scotland, with Alan Cumming, comes to mind), which interpret Dionysus as a proto-Boy George replete with girl-groupie Bacchantes. Joanne Akalaitis's new staging doesn't skirt the pop-star trappings entirely. Like Cumming's, Jonathan Groff's Dionysus grabs a mike at the opening. And Groff sports a leather jacket. What he does not do is give us a Dionysus who is well-spoken. With his spill of curls and creamy skin, Groff emitted a magnetic androgyny in last summer's glorious Park production of Hair . But can this pretty boy act?

TalkinBroadway B-
(Matthew Murray) If this Bacchae never completely coheres into a consistently solid show, its exploration of the wrath of a god and his breaking down civilized society on his whim still leads to a largely fulfilling amalgam of motion, music, and mayhem....Why Akalaitis is so insistent on challenging some stereotypes and embracing others is the greatest mystery of this production, and not an enriching one. The stately line delivers and deliberate pacing she imposes on all the characters except Dionysus, Pentheus, and Pentheus’s mother, Agave (Joan Macintosh) are at perpendicular odds with much else: Glass’s music, of course, but also John Conklin’s bleacher-backed stadium set resembling how the Theater at Epidaurus may have looked had chrome been in vogue two thousand years ago, and Kaye Voyce’s costumes that include everything from sharp business suits for the men and flame-orange jumpers for the chorus that might have leapt from the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

Backstage B-
(Erik Haagensen) Pentheus' choices are entirely reasonable, those of a loving son and a responsible leader. The point Euripides is making is not about a feckless government oppressing its citizens. It's that what man wants doesn't matter in the face of the gods, who demand submission and worship. This undoubtedly resonated with the Greeks, but we don't believe in their gods today, nor does the Western belief in a just and loving God allow for such capricious and tormenting behavior on his part. The central question of the play is moot. And that makes it awfully hard to stage successfully....The Bacchae is worth the trip for serious theatergoers, but Akalaitis hasn't solved the problem of making it relevant.

NYPost C
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Euripides' The Bacchae is one of the wildest, most violent plays in the Greek canon. But until the very last minutes, you'd be hard-pressed to find much ferocity in JoAnne Akalaitis' production... the show's uneven, indecisive tone is best summed up by the performance of the usually wonderful Joan MacIntosh. As Pentheus' mother, Agave, she enters in the final minutes to deliver a brutal monologue. Cradling a bloody severed head, then washing a mangled corpse, MacIntosh is magnetic one second, bizarrely off the next, as if unsure of what to do. Still, you can't help hanging on her every word: This text just can't be domesticated.

Time Out NY C-
(Adam Feldman) JoAnne Akalaitis’s pious, diffuse staging of the tragedy in Central Park seems willfully leached of danger. (This must be the first Bacchae in history to begin with Dionysus puttering around the stage in a hoodie, languidly packing a suitcase.) The miscast Groff has an appealing resemblance to Greek statuary—accessorized with a Joker-style smear of lipstick—but hides no menace beneath his wavy locks; and although the chorus is vibrantly costumed (in Asian outfits whose tangerine billows recall Christo’s Gates), there is no mania in its literalist and self-consciously collective movement, or in the meditative repetitions of Philip Glass’s often lovely score. Only rarely—as in Rocco Sisto’s gory messenger speech—is the production’s physical impressiveness matched with dramatic power. Most of the time, Akalaitis settles for tame, tasteful spectacle: a teetotaler’s toast to wine.

Variety C-
(Marilyn Stasio) Since helmer Akalaitis obviously intended the amoral god of licentiousness to be portrayed as a petulant youth with curly locks and torn jeans, it might be argued that Groff ("Spring Awakening," "Hair") is only doing his job. But even in this context, he doesn't muster the ferocious anger Dionysus turns on the leaders of Thebes for rejecting his claims to divinity and banning his dangerous new religion. Nor is he particularly believable as an Olympian stud capable of driving masses of women into a state of violent sexual frenzy just by breathing into his microphone.

Entertainment Weekly C-
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) There is one brief glimmer of vitality in this Bacchae — a monologue at the play's end of only about 100 lines or so, in which a messenger (the underrated character actor Rocco Sisto) relays the details of his master's death and dismemberment at the hands of the Bacchants. He speaks with no flourish or fanfare. There's no musical accompaniment. In fact, he hardly moves while recounting the grisly tale. But Sisto, with sad eyes and heavy heart, possesses more passion than all the women of Thebes combined. And this character, whom Euripedes neglected to give a name, succinctly and somberly conveys the fable's meaning: ''It is best to fear god and live a simple life.''

Lighting and Sound America D+
(David Barbour) Two minutes haven't passed before it's painfully clear that this Dionysus is in over his head. It's not that the preppy, puppyish Groff isn't believable as a vengeful god; you'd be hard-pressed to accept him as a juvenile delinquent. He strolls around the stage, clad in a leather jacket, his mouth stained with lipstick or blood; he makes extensive use of his crooked smile, when not crooning a brooding ballad or, more often, shouting himself hoarse. But he never comes off as anything but a troubled youth, the kind of kid who's mad at the world because nobody understands him. Much of his performance seems recycled from last summer's staging of Hair, but this is a terrible miscalculation. Dionysus is no flower child; he will slaughter innocents to make a point. When Pentheus, his cousin and antagonist -- an otherwise solid Anthony Mackie -- snarls at him, "You exude last," you want to laugh out loud, because Groff does nothing of the kind.

NYTimes D
(Ben Brantley) I left Ms. Akalaitis’s version, which runs through Sunday, with no premonition of bad dreams. An enduring figure in experimental theater and a founder of the deeply influential Mabou Mines troupe, Ms. Akalaitis would seem to be a natural for “The Bacchae.” She has never been afraid of discomfiting or alienating audiences, and she has never shied from the obscure. On the contrary, she is famous for adding layers of ambiguity to texts that seemed perfectly clear. Her Bacchae, though, has fewer shadows than a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. This is not a capricious comparison. The tone of this production, which uses a new (and appealingly accessible) translation by Nicholas Rudall and a score by Mr. Glass that brings to mind stripped-down Tchaikovsky ballet music, is bizarrely that of light opera in a minor key. Even when a character gleefully hefts a severed head (which happens to be her son’s) in the air, the show exudes the frolicsome blandness of a Ruritanian romance set to music.

Village Voice D
(Michael Feingold) And here is [Akalatis'] chorus—the vitally important Euripidean chorus of wild women, foreign to Thebes, worshippers following the trail of a strange new god. Who are they? The same nice girls in uniform costumes, this time orangey-pink lawn-party dresses by Kaye Voyce, evocative of some quaint spring ritual on a 1930s Seven Sisters campus. Here they come, chanting in unison, more or less comprehensibly, to quasi-recitativo phrases by Philip Glass, making gracefully unison minimalist motions choreographed by David Neumann. And it all looks exactly like what Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) said it should look like, and what two and a half centuries' worth of earnest academicians have striven to make it look like: noble antiquity, possessing the grave stillness of the best ancient vase paintings. And not a half-second's worth of beauty, reality, poetry, drama, or truth.

Washington Post D
(Peter Marks) Citing scheduling problems, Shakespeare recently backed out of an announced partnership with the Joseph Papp Public Theater, leaving both a hole in the D.C. company's lineup -- eventually filled by Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist" -- and the Public Theater in the lurch. The question for Washington's public, though, has more to do with the what than the why. As in: What sort of loss does this represent for the local theater season? Well . . . er . . . hmm. On the basis of the low-voltage, scattered exercise that director JoAnne Akalaitis has styled for the Delacorte stage (and which was scheduled for its official opening Monday night), the impact of the cancellation might not be measurable even on the most sensitive seismograph. Her 90-minute Bacchae, set to a curiously peppy score by Philip Glass, labors to find the scalding conflict in the contest between the self-infatuated god Dionysus (Jonathan Groff) and the Theban king (Anthony Mackie) who denies his divinity.

Bloomberg D-
(John Simon) Jonathan Groff’s Dionysus is too often cutely precious, unfearsomely laughing a lot, more prettily boyish than sexily virile and as likely to be a teetotaler as the god of wine. Equally unconvincing is David Neumann’s choreography for the Chorus. Rather than orgiastic bacchantes, the 12 women mostly suggest synchronized gymnasts in Olympic routines. And, alas, they sing to music by Philip Glass. This scoring isn’t quite as bad as much of Glass’s usual work, but it is highly erratic. Often, with barbaric percussiveness or mere loudness, it drowns out the Chorus’s song; at other times it becomes too musical comedyish. It does have its moments, but there is altogether too much of it. The Chorus of Euripides was often accompanied by a mere unswamping flute.

NY Daily News F+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) When well told, The Bacchae can be a stirring statement about power, birthright and divine madness. You know a production isn't getting traction when the memorable moments involve three raccoons scurrying in from the wings and hiding under the set. They had the right idea.

(Scott Brown) Bacchus refuses to rock (did I mention the score was by Philip Glass?), preferring instead to cackle at his own jokes, supervillain-style. His devotees, the mad, enchanted Bacchants, are similarly unfun, anti-sensual, and non-ecstatic. They sport weird Kahlo unibrows and, in their lumpen orange jumpers, evoke the Balinese cast of Mamma Mia! These huffing, puffing, occasionally power-walking Maenads work tirelessly to infuse the show with a dread it assiduously resists, and they occasionally succeed, against all odds. But boy, can you feel them working. They're reputed to tear animals limb from limb, but their "Bacchic dances" feel no more ominous than a lengthy jazzercise class—everyone seems to be counting beats or calories. Mackie sweats almost as hard, but he's on a treadmill: Manly Pentheus sees the power of Dionysus demonstrated time and again, but can't bring himself to acknowledge this androgynous god. Yet Mackie and Akalaitis never quite connect that stubbornness with a gripping interior psychology—the king's all-too-obvious repression is played for easy laughs—and we hurtle toward tragedy without much at stake. Horror arrives on schedule, Dionysus collects his blood debt, and a mother, after murdering her son, holds his severed head aloft and wails, "I was mad, and now he is dead." This should crush the audience, but it comes off as a summing-up. I received the information matter-of-factly, like a Google alert. After an hour and a half of strenuously literal choreography and two-dimensional line readings, can you blame me? This Bacchae has a way of staring the incomprehensible in the face ... and falling gently asleep, as if nodding off watching the news or in the middle of halfhearted midweek sex. It's proof that sometimes, when you look long into the abyss, the abyss yawns.

AP A- 12; TM B+ 11; FT B 10; TB B- 9; BS B- 9; NYP C 7; V C- 6; TONY C- 6; EW c- 6; LSA D+ 5; NYT D 4; WaPo D 4; VV D 4; BB D- 3; NYDN F+ 2; NYMAG F 1; TOTAL = 99 / 16 = 6.19 (C-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I enjoyed the show, I've been befuddled by the Public's tagline for the production, "what happens when a government attempts to outlaw desire." Is it really? Casting this complex and disturbing play as either a struggle between order and hedonistic "freedom," or even, as some critics suggest and feminst actualization against patriarchal domination robs it of the human tragedy Euripedes displays much less the discomforting exploration of the relationship between the human and the divine.