This was not my first rodeo with The Bacchae at the Guthrie Theater. It first baffled me in 1987 at the age of 15. My Mother used to get a pair of free tickets to a couple of shows a year and that was one of the shows I got to attend with her. I remember being impressed by the set, but feeling it was a bit long and lost. Not nearly as lost as I felt at another of those Guthrie nights around that time, when I saw The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. It’s a wonder I wasn’t turned off of theater after that one two punch. But mixed in there I distinctly remember seeing The Merry Wives of Windsor, whenever I here “Splish splash I was takin’ a bath”, I think of that production. I digress, maybe because I’m not sure what to say about The Bacchae. I didn’t love it or hate it. For me it was definitely less then the sum of its parts. If you are a fan of Greek tragedies, I suspect you will find a lot to admire in the production. I haven’t had a lot of exposure yet, let’s face it these are not performed as frequently as Shakespeare. So far I’ve only seen Euripides, the two versions of The Bacchae, and a production of Helen in college. I know the story of Oedipus the King and more than just a synopsis, so I suspect I either read the play in college or saw a production at some point but have forgotten where or when. This production of The Bacchae is actually a SITI Company Production.
The Bacchae tells the story of Dionysus son of the Greek God Zeus. Dionysus comes to Thebes when he learns that Pentheus, King of Thebes, has decreed that no one can worship Dionysus anymore, as he doesn’t believe he is the son of Zeus and therefore not a God. Dionysus doesn’t like this news and decides to take revenge upon Pentheus. So he makes all the women go kind of crazy. They all go up on the mountain and do God knows what. Dionysus somehow convinces the King to disguise himself in womens clothing and go up to the mountain and see for himself what is going on. We are later told that the women tore him apart not knowing what they were doing. His Mom even comes home with his head in a bag, though she is under the delusion that it is the head of a lion. The lesson to the audiences of ancient Greece was to respect the Gods.
So what works and what doesn’t? First off, it’s 90 minutes but it seems like two hours. It’s very talky, it tells you what happens rather than shows you. For Example Dionysus is arrested, but escapes. We hear about the escape rather than see it. We see Pentheus go off in a dress to the the mountain. Then we hear about how he was observing the women and suddenly they were ripping him apart. Now I’m not advocating for showing us the extreme and graphic violence. But there’s a lot you can show us here that would be more engaging. If I ran the zoo I’d probably do an evening of Greek Classics, run it as 2 acts each act is a condensed version of one of the plays where you show the narrative rather than tell it and a 15 minute intermission between the two plays. What does work are some of the design and lighting elements by Brian H. Scott. The design is simple, mostly some curtains, but it gives it a epic feel as they are very large curtains, and they make an even bigger statement at the end of the play. Given that they tell rather than show so much it makes sense that they don’t need intricate and detailed sets. Another aspect that worked for me was a sort of self awareness and modern pop culture element that seemed to flourish at times and at others be completely forgotten. It may be the decidedly 20th century music that opened the show, or the way Dionysus played by Ellen Lauren breaks the fourth wall and talks to and mentions the audience. The production also excelled at movement, the work they do with these martial arts staffs is precise and graceful.
The Bacchae plays through April 5th on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/ .