The Bacchae

Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Sunday, August 16.

People asked me whether I enjoyed The Bacchae, and I could only answer, “Well, it was interesting.” I don’t mean that as criticism or a non-recommendation (well, not exactly). I doubt that you could create a production of Euripides’s play, more than thousand years old, that I would enjoy, per se. Despite the program notes’ insistence otherwise, I don’t find much of contemporary relevance in the ancient Greek work. But it’s interesting, I’ll grant you without hesitation, and the performances are intriguing, and the production is striking and well done, so I couldn’t ask for more. The Bacchae is what it is. It couldn’t be otherwise.

The play involves a conflict between Dionysus (Jonathan Groff), the upstart young god of wine, and his mortal cousin Pentheus (Anthony Mackie), king of Thebes. Dionysus has been roaming across Asia Minor, inspiring women to leave their husbands and families and join his ecstatic cult. Now he has returned to Thebes, his human mother’s home, but Pentheus stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his divinity, despite the god’s numerous, contemptuous shows of power. Perhaps Pentheus simply can’t accept that his aunt Semele was telling the truth, that Zeus himself was the father of her unborn child. Perhaps the flight of his own mother, Agave, to join Dionysus’s rabid horde of women sends him over the edge. Perhaps the supposed godliness of the violent Bacchans is too much for him to bear. But for whatever reason, Pentheus sneers at Dionysus, and that is destined to end very badly.

It would be difficult to underestimate just how unsympathetic the adversaries are. One could argue (the program notes do) that Pentheus is a paragon of rationality, rejecting the mania of the Bacchans in favor of reasoned statecraft, but I don’t find his behavior remotely rational. Dionysus’s divinity is obvious—his jailbreak alone is an openly supernatural stunt—so Pentheus’s refusal to even acknowledge that divinity is bullheaded and foolish, not principled. What’s more, even if he were standing on principle, the arrogant king discards any moral high ground when he eagerly accepts Dionysus’s suggestion that he spy on the Bacchans. The god’s plan is a transparent attempt to trap the king in a humiliating, horrific position, and Pentheus is an idiot to go along with it. I don’t read Pentheus’s downfall as the impotence of rationality in the face of manic irrationality. The inevitable springing of the trap is pathetic, not tragic.

That said, Dionysus is a monster. I’m exactly the sort of person inclined to be sympathetic to the Bacchan women’s rejection of their patriarchal shackles, but their adherence to Dionysus reminded me more of Charles Manson’s followers than any kind of feminist trailblazer. Like the Manson family women, the Bacchans have genuine grievances that they throw off in favor of a greater tyranny, not to mention participation in appalling violence. Plus, Euripides’s insistence on making women in general representative of human irrationality is galling—as if Pentheus is any better!

To the limited extent that the Public Theater production is compelling, I give the credit to director JoAnne Akalaitis and her team. The chorus is well integrated (always tricky in a contemporary production of an ancient Greek work), and though I could have done without all the “exotic” signifiers and animal noises (which were … let’s say problematic), the performances, led by Karen Kandel, are riveting. Most of the chorus text is set to original music by Philip Glass, and the women perform the compositions with gusto: tight yet perfectly tuned harmonies, bravura dynamic flourishes, and energetic dancing. The chorus sections of Greek plays can be interminable, but in this Bacchae, they were the highlight.

Mackie and Groff have the difficult parts, and they pull them off as well as anyone could, I think. Mackie (so good in The Hurt Locker this summer!) is a compelling stage presence, but he couldn’t make me understand Pentheus’s bizarre decision to accept Dionysus’s plan at face value. (I’m not sure that would be possible.) Groff made his name as the lead in Spring Awakening, which doesn’t make me overly fond of him, but I have to admit that he has the petulant rock star act down cold. When he’s just taunting mere mortals and inspiring raucous orgies, he’s reasonably credible—and chillingly cold underneath all the vineyard trappings. But when Dionysus becomes truly murderous, Groff starts to feel a bit slight. Again, I’m reluctant to fault the actor. As written, Dionysus’s vendetta is completely over the top—and his use of his own loyal followers as unwitting tools of his vengeance is unspeakably cruel on a human level and weirdly counterproductive and off-message on a superhuman level. The play insists that the House of Thebes is being punished its entirety, and the other royals tearfully accept personal blame, but it is only Pentheus who defies the gods! Agave and Cadmus, Pentheus’s grandfather, pay proper homage to Dionysus. Since when, in Greek drama, are the sins of the children visited on the parents? It’s usually the other way around, and the unexamined inversion makes little sense here.

Inevitably, the performances that work best are the one-off narrative monologues. In Greek drama, the key action tends to take place offstage, and then minor characters have to come tell us about the awful things that have happened. The herdsman (Steven Rishard) describing his sighting of the Bacchans, the servant (Sullivan Corey) describing Pentheus’s death—these are powerful performances, maybe a shade melodramatic but how could they not be? In any case, their character’s motivations are clear (if beside the point), the writing and translations are eloquent, and the actors are superb storytellers.

I just wish I got more out of their stories! I tried, turning over the rationality/irrationality theme pushed by the program notes, and summoning up the old feminist literary theories of my college career, and pondering the play’s historical context (I admit my ancient Greek history is relatively sketchy, so I probably could have done more there, but I’ve never been fond of treating works of literature as artifacts anyway)—it all left me cold. As far as I can tell, the point of the damn play is that one owes groveling humility even to a cruel, sadistic, capricious god, and I just don’t have the patience for that type of thing, particularly when it’s hammered home with such a bald lack of nuance and characterization. However striking the Public Theater production is, it can’t compensate with the fact that Euripides’s conception of the gods (or God—whatever) simply isn’t relevant today. No offence to the great dramatist, but his play is more than a thousand years old, and its age is showing.