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A Mouthful of Birds
in repertory with
The Bacchae 2.1

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Euripides' tragedy, The Bacchae, relates the tale of a group of Theban women who renounce their families and responsibilities to celebrate Dionysus, the God of intoxication and theatre, in the mountains. As an act of revenge, Dionysus coerces his cousin Pentheus, the King of Thebes, to venture into the mountains to spy on them. Though this legend is the basis for both of the plays now being performed in repertory by the Rude Mechanicals Theater Company at the Flea Theatre, the plays themselves couldn't be more different.

The first, A Mouthful of Birds, by Caryl Churchill and David Lan and directed by Rebecca Taylor, relates to the original play only incidentally. In it, Dionysus (Craig Yochem) enters into the lives of seven different people and makes each of them more miserable before departing again. Churchill, well known for tackling unusual subject matter in innovative ways, will not disappoint her fans here. If you wish to see a play in which segments include baby killing, pot and pan clattering, and man-pig love, you need look no further.

The second, The Bacchae 2.1, was written by Charles L. Mee, Jr., and is directed here by Kenn Watt. This modern reworking of the story uses the source's original names, locations, and subject matter, but tells the story in (mostly) modern language. Experimenting with unique forms of storytelling, the Bacchae become dancers who entertain us at varying intervals and reveal their true colors in the second act, while one pivotal scene is enacted several times in quick succession in very different interpretations.

Though A Mouthful of Birds is much more daring, The Bacchae 2.1 is far more comprehensible and entertaining. Watt seems to have a firmer grasp of his play than Taylor, and is able to communicate the meaning of play without having his actors shout every other word. Though The Bacchae 2.1 also had more inventive, watchable choreography (by Kara Golux), the overall staging and stylized movement in A Mouthful of Birds provided a more fulfilling experience, almost more a dance piece with dialogue than a play in the traditional style. Unfortunately, the more of the choreography (provided by Lindsey Hanahan) you see, the more you're convinced very little of it is new.

Overall, A Mouthful of Birds is more consistent; its cast has no difficulty in keeping their energy up throughout the show, and the last minute is every bit as vital as the first. Though the momentum is very strong in the first act of The Bacchae 2.1, the second act suffers greatly. The intermission seems to only exist to allow time for a needlessly complex scenery change. (The first act was performed with almost entirely representative scenery, while the second was strikingly realistic in tone, and a full set.)

Michael Aronov, as Dionysus in The Bacchae 2.1, gave the strongest performance of both plays, utilizing the language demands of Mee's text with skill, while also providing an accomplished physical characterization. His Pentheus, Jonathan Tindle, made an excellent match for him, and his aides (Omar Metwally and Scott Bowman) deftly provided their share of the play's comedy, with a few dramatic moments of their own. The cast of A Mouthful of Birds may be overall more technically proficient, but the cast of The Bacchae 2.1 were far better at communicating their play to the audience.

Though neither A Mouthful of Birds nor The Bacchae 2.1 is able to reach the heights of Euripides' original work, both are a reminder that even a work over 2400 years old can continue to inspire theatre companies of today. The undertaking is an ambitious and a fascinating one by Rude Mechanicals, and worth the trip if you wish to see two very different modern takes on the same ancient source, even if (or perhaps especially if) there are no productions of The Bacchae itself available.

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Rude Mechanicals Theater Company
A Mouthful of Birds
in repertory with
The Bacchae 2.1
The Flea Theater
41 White Street between Church and Broadway, three blocks south of Canal
Tickets: $19, $12 students and Seniors
Reservations and information (212) 246-2407