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Theatre in Review: The Bacchae (Classical Theatre of Harlem)

Jason C. Brown and cast. Photo: Richard Termine.

One thing you can say about The Classical Theatre of Harlem: This company always puts on a show. Its summer productions at Marcus Garvey Park are always grandly scaled, making use of some of the most interesting young designers around. This is certainly true of The Bacchae, CTH's current attraction: The set, by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, is a towering, triple-level scaffold featuring scrim panels to which Katherine Freer, the projection designer, delivers colorful abstraction as well as images of flames and closeups of faces. Alan C. Edwards' lighting provides saturated backwash and uplighting effects, chases and ballyhoos, and blinder cues that signal the onset of ritual murder. Lex Liang's inventively stylized costumes link the contemporary city to the classical past. Frederick Kennedy's music provides a steady beat of drums that cue the doom to come. For spectacle and a sense of occasion, the production can't be beat.

In this case, however, such showmanship may be not be the best way to serve The Bacchae. By any measure, it is a challenging work, an enigmatic tragedy with an outcome that can be interpreted in more than one way. (You can see it as either an awed tribute to the power of religion -- in this case, orgiastic Dionysian practices -- or a rejection of them as savage and inhumane.) In this version, Bryan Doerries, who has adapted the original by Euripides, and Carl Cofield, the director, put the tale to their own uses, adding a strong smash-the-patriarchy theme; this is an arguable point and it certainly couldn't be more of the moment. Even with its overt reach for shock and spectacle, however, this Bacchae lacks the gut punch that classical tragedy can deliver.

The action is, quite rightly, dominated by Jason C. Brown as Dionysus, half-god and half-human, who comes to earth in search of revenge. A tall, rangy performer outfitted with a pronounced strut and commanding voice, he turns the character into a provocative pansexual creature with shoulder-length hair, dressed in skinny jeans, a top that resembles a bustier, and metal-studded codpiece. In his first appearance, trailed by a chorus of adoring female fans, he could be a rock star -- Mick Jagger crossed with Prince, say, accepting the tribute of his crazed groupies. As such, he is perfectly poised to challenge the skeptical, self-satisfied, all-male power structure of Thebes. (In disguise, he is initially referred to as "preacher D," but, to be sure, his gospel is one of sex.) It's an interesting and original characterization, but from the beginning, something is off: With their intentionally tacky costumes and Tiffany Rea-Fisher's slinky chorography, Dionysus' followers -- the Bacchettes, as they are known here -- come across as a Bob Fosse chorus line of floozies, like the Fandango Ballroom girls in Sweet Charity. Seeing them spread out on all levels of the set, rocking out ecstatically like a squad of disco dancers, one is tempted to rename the production The Bacchae-√°-Go-Go.

Dionysus is furious because the relatives of his mother, Semele, deny that he is a child of Zeus. Seeking revenge, he gathers a band of female devotees that includes his aunts and sets them to run riot in the wilderness outside the city. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, wants to end all this female carrying-on: "I hear they worship sex more than god," he notes, disapprovingly, adding, "We will run them down from the hill and lock them up. We will build a wall and put a quick end to this mess!" This tired, too-easy contemporary reference to Trumpian perfidy is the theatre's newest cliché, and the laziest way of earning a laugh or round of applause. (In addition, it is irrelevant to the action of The Bacchae,) It is also one of several contemporary references, including mentions of Uber, jitney cabs, and Tijuana, that have a trivializing effect. (We could probably also do without the bit in which Dionysus brings a female member of the audience onstage to take part in a little dance; it's another sign that the production is working overtime to be accessible to a broad audience.)

Brown and RJ Foster, as the assertively masculine Pentheus, work up some heat in the big scenes, especially when Dionysus plants a kiss on the king and gets a punch in the stomach for it. When Dionysus convinces Pentheus to disguise himself as a woman -- the better to spy on the Bachettes -- Foster makes clear exactly how discomfited Pentheus is to find pleasure in drag, to the point of weeping and begging Dionysus to make him beautiful. ("Just let me straighten your falsies, and fix your mascara," replies Dionysus.) At this point, it seems pretty clear that this production is going all in on transgression in terms of sexual roles. But, in trying to navigate Euripidean drama and contemporary gender politics -- and mixing violent tragedy with a sense of humor that stops just short of a smirk -- this Bacchae also risks becoming incoherent.

In keeping with the rest of the production, the actors equate intensity with insight, delivering vigorous performances that never get near the horror at the play's heart. This is especially so when Andrea Patterson, as Aguae, Pentheus' mother, shows up carrying bloody evidence of the atrocities that Dionysus and his followers have unleashed on the world. She delivers her speeches forcefully, but without the howl of terror that should accompany them. The others -- including Charles Bernard Murray as Cadmus, Pentheus' grandfather; Brian D. Coats as the blind prophet Tiresias; and Lori Vega as the leader of the chorus -- follow suit. Still, for all their orating, the production ends on an oddly unresolved note: A king has been brought low, the known world has been shaken to its core -- yet none of these things are deeply felt.

It may be the nature of outdoor theatre that visual spectacle will overshadow human drama, although the company's productions of Antigone and Macbeth certainly had plenty of power. It's also possible that Curtis Craig's sound design -- which, especially in the choral passages, sometimes slips into unintelligibility -- is partly at fault. In any case, this is a visually stimulating, but surface-skimming, version of a great, troubling play. At a time when the confluence of religion and politics has never been more problematic, when the battle between the rational and primal is especially fraught, this production should deliver much more. --David Barbour

(12 July 2019)

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