New Version by Anne Carson
Directed by Jillian Keiley
At the Tom Patterson Theatre. Till September 23, 2017
Mac Fyfe’s Dionysos (also called Bromios, Bakkhos, and Lydian Stranger) is slim, sinuous, long-haired, bare-footed, and androgynous. “I set all Asia dancing,” he announces proudly, adding that he has come to Thebes to thrill the people. His words are addressed to the Bakkhai or maenads (madwomen), his female acolytes who have more than just a streak of radical feminism. On a blood-red floor with a red vine-leaf at centre (designed by Shawn Kerwin and expressively lit by Cimerron Meyer), they wear dressed rippling white robes with red stains spreading upwards from the hem like wine or blood stains, they carry pine-cone tipped thyrsi that they wield like spears, portending violence. They dance to music composed by Veda Hille, and though there is at first an unmistakable note of eerie strangeness, the sounds devolve into a disconcertingly cabaret mode, with lyrics that would do Celine Dion proud. Of course, this is a modern version, and, of course, Carson’s text, rife with contemporary colloquialisms, phrases, and references, is intended to revitalize an ancient classic for modern audiences. Also modern but apt in this theatrical re-versioning are the Kadmos of Nigel Bennett and the Teiresias of Graham Abbey, both finely nuanced and both capable of sounding contemporary without sacrificing links to their Greek source.
This production, as director Jillian Keiley explains in her program notes, is offered as “a public dream: sometimes illogical, sometimes erotic, sometimes operating under the constraint of linear time, sometimes not.” At the Patterson, it is a dream in the round, where the background context is strikingly and antagonistically patriarchal. Pentheus, arrogant yet childish, rational yet gullible, exerts his political power with vengeance against all women who dare to threaten traditional order. Hence the feminist bakkhai and their wild, orgiastic behaviour—though the pre-show warning about “explicit scenes of eroticism” is hardly necessary, because apart from mimed lesbian cunnilingus and couplings, and a scene where Dionysus fondles and assaults a transvestite Pentheus, there is little sexual matter to shock even boy scouts of today. Gordon S. Miller’s Pentheus is a little uncertain in high heels and woman’s dress, but he is good in the scenes where his domineering masculinity comes to the fore.
What is particularly good about Keiley’s staging is the reminder that Greek tragedy is short, taut, and bloody. It is also a reminder of essential dichotomies in the ancient genre: calamity (grand and mundane) as a product of domestic antagonism. Family problems, intermixed with religious blasphemies, are at the root of all the conflicts. Dionysos plots against Theban ruler Pentheus (to whom he is related by blood-lines) for casting doubt that he is, in fact, the son of Zeus and for banning all public worship of his cult. How Dionysos achieves his bloody revenge is the stuff of a drama, whose gory climax arrives when Pentheus’s mother, Agave, and the maenads (drunk and mad) tear Pentheus to pieces, whom they mistake for a lion. Most of the spectacular supernatural upheavals and bloody actions occur offstage, yet the sight of Lucy Peacock’s mad Agave carrying the head of her son like a trophy is thrillingly grisly and powerful. A sight that becomes toweringly awesome when Agave realizes that she has unwittingly killed her own son. Peacock gives Dionysos’s acolytes their strongest bond with the primitive, the raw, and the psychically deranged, almost single-handedly rescuing them from kitsch.