Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Back to The Bacchae

"Euripides, I'll rippa dose!" Local girls get ready to tear some human flesh in The Bacchae.

To me, Greek tragedy always feels a bit like semaphore, transmitted across an ocean of time and space. We get the harrowing gist of the communication, but the fullness of the original experience - even its true form - remains elusive; we have to construct much of its theatrical context from scraps and hints and academic guesswork. Even the names of the characters remain open to debate.

But even if we were to identify its format precisely, Greek drama would still present a unique problem in terms of accessibility. Indeed, even to call it "drama" is something of a misnomer, because we've come to realize it's an elaborate synthesis of drama with something like opera and something like dance - all crossed with a Mass. We don't have a form like that. So any attempt to replicate it accurately would underline its strangeness to our sensibility, when it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to the Greeks.

Still, even as semaphore, these plays have enormous power, not because they limn "tragic flaws" but because they evoke so brutally the contradictions of human experience. Oedipus, for instance, tells us bluntly that we are unknowing conspirators in our own downfalls - and that the highest among us are actually guilty of the greatest sins. Euripides's The Bacchae has a similarly paradoxical edge: it both warns the ego against suppression of the id, while revealing just how horrifyingly far the id can go if it isn't contained.

To get at these ancient truths in the absence of the form that embodied them, most modern interpreters have settled on a set of conventions which the Whistler in the Dark production at the BCA largely follows, even if the group is presenting a new translation, by Francis Blessington. The design is simple but evocative; the movement modern-dance-y, accompanied by percussion (here inspired by Steve Reich's "Drumming," from Boston Ballet's recent "Black and White;" amusingly enough, my review is what drew director Meg Taintor to that ballet). The god Dionysos is played by each of the actors in turn, who make the transition by donning a golden mask - a nice genuflection to the idea that, like some pagan antecedent of the Holy Spirit, the god of orgiastic abandon can "descend" upon any one of his followers and possess them.

Unfortunately, the production falls, then rises in pretty much the same reverse arc that every production I've ever seen has: the opening evocations of the feminine bacchanals plaguing Thebes are blurry and loud, without being particularly unsettling (an understandable feminist bias often leads productions, I think, to sympathize too far with the madness of the bacchantes). But once the inexperienced Pentheus makes his fateful decision to join the crazed celebrants in female disguise, the proceedings are suddenly gripping, and often intensely so. This despite the fact that as Pentheus, young actor Phil Crumrine lacks the technique to suggest the internal conflict driving his repression of the irrational (and the feminine).

But here Euripides comes to Whistler's rescue: shifting from that problematic nexus of dance and song, the playwright delivers pithy scenes of almost unbelievable horror - including a mother who rends her own son limb from limb - which the new translation gives fresh life (it was hard for me to judge its earlier scenes due to all the drumming and shouting). And actors Curt Klump and Jennifer O'Connor (both at left) do justice to this intense material - particularly moving was O'Connor's sudden realization that she was toying with her own son's severed head (here that golden mask again, only this time drenched in blood). In O'Connor's quiet pathos, suddenly the deep meaning of this ancient semaphore came all too clear.

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