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The Bacchae

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Bacchae
Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackie.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The four-note system of muddy chords that echoes on an endless loop over the Delacorte Theater sound system before the start of The Public Theaterís new mounting of The Bacchae is an excellent metaphor for the show itself. It does not suggest the erotic abandon of women twisted into madness by their carnal desires, but rather a dirge march played on an ancient pipe organ. It doesnít give you much hope that Euripidesís exotic play will be energetically realized by either director JoAnne Akalaitis or composer Philip Glass, but thereís nonetheless something intoxicating about it, drawing you into a forbidden world youíd probably prefer to avoid. And once youíre in, the music becomes loaded with rapture and religious fervor that both justifies and condemns the pre-show recordingís flattened, repetitive strains.

Warring disparities such as these run rampant through Akalaitisís production of Nicholas Rudallís pungent new translation, which is only appropriate given how ingrained they are in the play itself. But if this Bacchae never completely coheres into a consistently solid show, its exploration of the wrath of a god and his breaking down civilized society on his whim still leads to a largely fulfilling amalgam of motion, music, and mayhem.

Glassís notes are the first elements to scream their worth, at least once theyíve melted into the crueler and heavier refrains that identify the god Dionysus (Jonathan Groff) as a prideful, omniscient mischief-maker. As he intones his vicious plans to prove himself to the rulers of Thebes, his motherís family who have always denied his divinity, his words are underscored by pounding drums and plaintive pleads from the four brass instruments in Mick Rossiís six-piece band. And when the Chorus, Dionysusís band of female devotees from Asia, enters to assume its place as the landís new maternal majority, Glass and Rossi give their sung views opera-weight validity by sounding a pulsing, traffic-like din over which every sensible Bacchantís obeisance may float.

The score provides an invigorating baseline from which the rest of the story may easily evolve, but doesnít always. The inventiveness of the music soon gives way to staunchly traditional performances that the oldest of theatrical habits truly do die hard. As the blind seer Teiresias (Andrť de Shields) and Cadmus (George Bartenieff), the former King of Thebes and Dionysusís grandfather (after a fashion), prepare to join the Theban women who have gone to celebrate their new God on Mount Cithaeron, they dawdle and restrainedly prance through their discussion without a hint of the charge thatís supposedly driving them onward. Pentheus (Anthony Mackie), the current King of Thebes, on the other hand, makes his first entrance as if shot out of a cannon, bursting with the rage and confidence that will propel him to that same mountain - and an untimely fate - in due course.

The Bacchae
Jonathan Groff and the chorus.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Why Akalaitis is so insistent on challenging some stereotypes and embracing others is the greatest mystery of this production, and not an enriching one. The stately line delivers and deliberate pacing she imposes on all the characters except Dionysus, Pentheus, and Pentheusís mother, Agave (Joan Macintosh) are at perpendicular odds with much else: Glassís music, of course, but also John Conklinís bleacher-backed stadium set resembling how the Theater at Epidaurus may have looked had chrome been in vogue two thousand years ago, and Kaye Voyceís costumes that include everything from sharp business suits for the men and flame-orange jumpers for the chorus that might have leapt from the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

Then thereís the choreography. David Neumannís work, unlike almost every other visual, is based on Akalaitisís ďslow burnĒ concept. But if anything should be a rapid sizzle, itís this - these women have been released from societal strictures and allowed to connect with their basest lusts. This demands exhausting exaltation, an orgasmic frenzy of savoring delights that have long been caged. These women move as though theyíre sifting the racks at Bloomingdales, not as though theyíve finally achieved their heartsí deepest desires. Itís a devastating, stodgy blow made even more painful by the excitement of the music and of Rudallís words, which limn as much poetry as possible from the charactersí concerns while keeping everything rooted firmly in the modern vernacular.

Then there are the performances, some of which are outstanding. Mackie is doing some of his best stage work yet, commanding absolutely authority as Pentheus while still displaying enough of the perpetually aroused boy whoís likely to masquerade as a woman and risk everything for a glimpse of the unknowable. Macintosh is searing as Agave, delicious delirious one moment, and an explosive shell of self-loathing the next, as she realizes the irredeemable mistakes her misplaced faith has led her to. Bartenieff brings a cool strength to Cadmus that nicely contrasts with de Shieldsís tottering Teiresias, showing how blood flows in men of all conditions and stations, and Rocco Sisto is achingly accurate as the Messenger scarred by the terrors he witnessed on Cithaeron.

Groff, however, is a bewildering and false Dionysus, less ambisexual than asexual and registering traces of neither mirth nor malice in wreaking his havoc on Thebes. That his defining character trait is his heavily smeared lipstick doesnít fortify his character much, true. But he also rarely convinces in his lines, never portraying the essence of indignation - he sounds like a boy pretending to know what heís talking about without actually having a clue, the opposite of the more knowing and feeling youths he more successfully played in Spring Awakening and Hair (in the Delacorte last summer).

Dionysus requires an actor who can convincingly bride the worlds of the mortal and eternal, and the playful and the deadly - a darker version of Nathan Lane, who played the same role in The Frogs at Lincoln Center five years ago, would be closer. But Groffís miscasting makes sense in The Bacchae of JoAnne Akalaitis, which - like the play itself - is about dangerous choices that can be transcendent or appalling, with little middle ground. That this version so frequently soars in spite of itself is a tribute not just to Glass but to the infinite creative spirit his work represents and that the real Dionysus would himself almost certainly applaud.

The Bacchae
Through August 30
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
This summer The Public Theater will again offer a limited number of free tickets through a Virtual Line, available at