Review: The Bacchae


Originally reviewed for

Avant garde director JoAnne Akalaitis, who has a long and ambivalent history with the Public Theatre (she was its Artistic Director for one controversial, embattled season after founder Joe Papp died), returns from an absence of many years to direct Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae, a sexy, violent and haunting tale of unbending hyper-masculinity undone by a powerful, androgynous, merciless god.

In The Bacchae, Pentheus, king of Thebes, seeks to suppress the worship of Dionysos, god of wine and the theatre, who has possessed the city’s women, including his mother. The offended god offers Pentheus repeated opportunities to relent, but when he doesn’t Dionysos swears his own unrelenting vengeance.

The two primary pleasures of this production are a lush score by Phillip Glass, and a sensuous yet chilling portrayal of Dionysos from Jonathan Groff. Glass’s propulsive music for small ensemble and female chorus gives you a fantastic sense of what the Greek choruses of Euripides’ own time were like. Every word is crystal clear, thanks to Glass’s clean and minimalist style, and yet the music is forceful enough to really fill the Delacorte amphitheatre.

Groff, best know for his work in musicals, also sings small snatches of Glass’s music, often in an ethereal falsetto. He gets a lot of things just right: Dionysos is described as having flashing eyes, and even when you can’t see Groff’s eyes, you can feel him shoot razor-sharp glances to the last row. The sensuality, the wicked sideways smile, its all there in spades (his laughter is the only part that rings a bit false—it should send a chill up your spine, but in the performance I saw it came off a bit “mad scientist”).

Akalaitis’s production leans heavily on its marvellous score and star; the rest of it feels a bit stiffly Modernist, all hard angles where it should be enticing and malevolent shadows. Still, it’s the most hard-hitting show to be staged at the Delacorte in years, and deserves to be seen by just as many people as was the star-studded Twelfth Night.

For tickets, click here.

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