This review of Euripides' The Bacchae in the First Floor Theatre at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Euripides
Presented by The Faux-Real Theatre Company
in association with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
Directed by Mark Greenfield
Masks & Puppets by Lynda White
Costume Design by Irina Gets
Dramaturge by Aaron Poochigian
Musical Director: Tony Naumovski
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
First Floor Theatre
74A East 4th Street
New York, New York 10003
The Bacchae is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Athenian playwright Euripides during his final years in Macedonia at the court at Archelaus I of Macedon. It premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 B.C. and won first prize in the City of Dionysia festival competition. The tragedy is based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (who is Pentheus' cousin) for slandering him by denying he is a true son of Zeus. The god Dionysus usually appears as "the god of wine and uninhibited joy and instinct" but here he has borrowed a page from the playbook of Ares, the god of war, to seek revenge for the blasphemies. At first, his modest goal is to introduce Dionysian rites into Thebes, establish a permanent cult of followers, and demonstrate to the people of Thebes that he is, in fact, a god. However, Dionysus becomes increasingly incensed by what he sees and his desire for revenge is intensified to the point where, by the end of the play, there is the horrible and gruesome death of the king and the wrecking of the city of Thebes by the destruction of the ruling party and the exiling of the entire population.
A superficial evaluation of the plot might lead you to conclude Euripides wrote a play in honour of Dionysus containing a dire warning to all non-believers. However, given the fact that Euripides was often critical of the Greek gods and their followers, I took particular note of the fact that the followers of Dionysus tended to be women, old men, the infirm, and the ignorant, who saw "miracles" in everything he did. Dionysus also reveals he has driven the women of the city mad, including his three aunts, and has led them into the mountains to observe his ritual festivities. Whether they became "mad" due to having taken drugs (perhaps a hallucinogen) or as a result of extreme religious fervour, his followers, The Bacchae, are certainly not themselves. They are exhibiting "super-human strength" and many are literally foaming at the mouth. A herdsman arrived from the top of Mount Cithaeron and reported to King Pentheus, a rational and intelligent man, that he found women on the mountain behaving strangely. Some were sleeping quietly or drinking wine while listening to flute music. Others were going into the woods "in pursuit of love," putting snakes in their hair, and suckling wild wolves and gazelles. The herdsman and the shepherds made a plan to capture Agave, the King's mother, but the tables were turned and the women attacked the men. The men escaped but the cattle were not so fortunate, as the women fell upon the animals ripping them to shreds with their bare hands. Using their ceremonial staffs of fennel as weapons, they plundered two villages ISIS-style, stealing bronze and even babies. Dionysus, still in disguise, persuades King Pentheus (who wants to "put a stop to this obscure disorder") to forego his plan to destroy the cult using armed force, and, to instead, spy on them while disguised as a woman. Betrayed and identified by Dionysus, The Bacchae force a trapped King Pentheus down from a treetop, and led by his mother Agave, they rip off his limbs, behead him, and claw the remaining parts of his body "clear of flesh." Just as you might expect an ISIS leader to say, Dionysus declares that Pentheus was "rightly punished" and "suffered justly." Agave is under the delusion she has killed a wild animal with her own hands and proudly shows Cadmus, her father, the severed head of Pentheus. Agave is brought back to sanity and realizes what she has done. Dionysus warns the audience, "If any mortal man denies the gods, look upon this."
Although we were not allowed to enter the theatre until five minutes before show time, we were greeted by The Bacchae, who served us wine, juice, and grapes. This was a nice touch that certainly put us in the mood for the 90-minute show that was to follow. PJ Adzima, who played King Pentheus, is the bright light and shining star of this production. Charismatic, confident and bold, this ancient child of science and rationality convincingly took a stand against radical religious fanaticism and recognizing the danger it posed to his kingdom, took action to defeat it. Mr. Adzima is a talented, charismatic actor with a great future in the theatre. I was inspired by his performance and stood ready to lend a helping hand for the sake of the cause. Andrew Bryce was also excellent as the gender-bending Dionysus (described in the play as "this effeminate stranger"), who Pentheus mocked for having girly curls and for not appearing to be someone who would excel as a wrestler. Dionysus weakens Pentheus' masculine resolve to take action to destroy his cult followers by convincing him to dress as a woman and "to spy" on The Bacchae instead of directly attacking. Once overcome by the urges of a more feminine nature, Pentheus starts to lose his rationality seeing two suns in the sky and believing he has the ability to rip apart mountains with his bare hands. This reinforces the old belief that women are governed by irrational emotions while men are governed by logic and reason. Tragedy then strikes Pentheus and Thebes. We leave having learned how a nation can be destroyed when its citizens embrace myth, mysticism, and superstition. Leave science and reason behind at your own peril!
If the themes I have mentioned interest you, I encourage you to see The Faux-Real Theatre Company's production of The Bacchae, which plays at La MaMa through March 20, 2016. The show has a cast of 16 and features a number of superior performances that are well worth the price of admission, which is $18.00 for adults and $13.00 for students and seniors. You can purchase tickets by calling 212-475-7710 or by visiting www.lamama.org. For more information, go to www.fauxreal.org