Monday, August 24, 2009

Shattered Glass

The Bacchae

Written by Euripides

Directed by Joanne Akalaitis
Translated by Nicholas Rudall
Music by Philip Glass
Starring Jonathan Groff, Andre De Shields, Joan MacIntosh, Jonathan Mackie, Rocco Sisto

August 11-30, 2009
Delacorte Theater, Central Park

Groff and Mackie
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Last summer, New Yorkers saw an over-the-top production of Euripides’ The Bacchae starring a drag-queen Alan Cumming as the god Dionysus, a chorus of singing soul sisters, and a bawdily androgynous, estrogen-fueled energy. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but at least new life was breathed into a 2500-year-old play, however wrongheaded.

Now, in Central Park, there’s a new staging of The Bacchae, from a respectable translation by Nicholas Rudall, that’s the flip side of last summer’s: this stately, respectful, eternally draggy production seems more like deconstruction than illumination. Whether that’s director Joanne Akalaitis’ intention is hard to say, but rarely have 90 minutes moved so slowly at the Delacorte Theater.

In The Bacchae, Dionysus comes to Thebes to wreak revenge for the killing of his mortal mother, Semele. He has enthralled the kingdom’s women to the point where they’ve become his unquestioning followers for mountainside debauchery, something which Pentheus, King of Thebes, wants to stop. When Dionysus is captured and jailed, the god promises to let the king see what the women (including Pentheus’ mother Agave) are doing: from there, the wheels of dramatic vengeance turn until we are left with a triumphant god and a kingdom literally torn to shreds.

This production begins with Jonathan Groff’s Dionysus—whose bushy head of hair marks him as the offspring of Rent or even Hair (which he starred in at the Delacorte last summer)—wandering around the stage, then changing into tight jeans and boots with a complicitous smile to the audience. To begin the play proper, the god grabs a microphone and, stalking the stage like a rock star, addresses the crowd in speech and in song.

If Akalaitis had continued this theme—that Dionysus, like a performer, is in his element onstage—this Bacchae might have had more than a faint pulse. Although Dionysus grabs the mike a few more times and much of the play takes place on John Conklin’s collapsed bleacher set, on which the cast members sit and watch the action, it’s all done haphazardly, with little regard for the work’s rhythmic drive. The result is dramatic stagnation.

Some of this is inherent in Greek tragedy, with its long, declamatory, descriptive monologues, but Akalaitis is unable to bypass this hurdle, as her mismatched leads show. Groff, an endlessly resourceful actor, tries to get by on his considerable charm, but aside from looking right, his Dionysus is less a roguish god of desire than a teenager hoping to be thought of as an adult. Anthony Mackie, by contrast, is a handsome and believably skeptical Pentheus.

Smaller roles are well-taken by Andre DeShields, George Bartenieff, Rocco Sisto and, as Agave, Joan MacIntosh, whose blood-curdling scream is the most enervating moment of the evening. The Chorus comprises a dozen women in bizarre orange costumes (by Kaye Voyce) who propel the story forward through speech and song as they run around the stage and into the bleachers in David Neumann’s bland choreography.

As for Philip Glass’ music, it’s the same old, same old from the famous minimalist composer. Occasionally a speck of melody appears, but otherwise, it sounds like the arpeggiated chords we’ve been hearing for decades, and even the chorus singers and Groff are defeated by its sameness. Unfortunately, that makes it the perfect accompaniment to this regrettably static Bacchae.

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