Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Bacchae
SITI Company / Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Interstate, The Music Man, and Face to Face


Akiko Aizawa, Ellen Lauren,
Donnell E. Smith, and
Stephen Duff Webber

Photo by Dan Norman
Is it true that every one of us has a wild side that needs to be exercised now and then? Sure, some of us live completely on the wild side, which is not necessarily recommended, as Euripides shows us in The Bacchae, but neither is it wise to completely bottle up our lustful, pleasure-seeking impulses to the point of implosion. That message is artfully, viscerally delivered in the Guthrie's presentation of SITI Company's production of the Greek play, over 2,400 years old but still chillingly pertinent. Unfortunately, the production has completed its run early, due to the coronavirus.

SITI Company was founded in 1992 by Anne Bogart, Tadashi Suzuki, and like-minded artists with the intent of reconceptualizing theater in the United States through an exchange of intercultural aesthetics and ideas, training and collaboration. Their website states that SITI Company "is committed to providing a gymnasium for the soul where the interaction of art, artists, audiences and ideas inspire the possibility for change, optimism and hope."

Those are lofty ambitions, only partially realized in their production of The Bacchae, commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum and first performed September 2018 at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. Inventively conceived, visually and aurally, it was magnificent in this production, and the ensemble was wonderful, but one is hard-pressed to find a lot of optimism and hope in this tragedy. That is not to say The Bacchae was not very worth seeing, and deserving of the deep reflections it was likely to trigger after the final bows, but this was hardly a good time kind of show.

Blame Euripides for a tragedy that depicts the ruin of a noble family when Pentheus, king of Thebes, issues totalitarian edicts against the practice Dionysian worship, that is, against the pursuit of pleasure. Pentheus further outlaws any consideration that his cousin Dionysus is a god. Dionysus' claimed to have been sired by Zeus, who impregnated his mortal mother Semele. She was then murdered by Zeus' jealous wife, allowing the infant Dionysus to survive. Semele's father Cadmus believed this, but the rest of her family accused her of lying to cover her sin, and drove her bastard child away. As Dionysus amassed power as god of music, theater, dance and wine, Pentheus was determined to cut him short.

All of this is backstory to the actual play, which opens as a disguised Dionysus returns to exact revenge on Pentheus and his kin. First Dionysius inflames the women of Thebes with unbridled lust. After taking refuge on a mountain, the women engage in ecstatic, orgiastic celebrations of wine, dance and flesh. Among them is Pentheus' own mother Agave. Dionysus draws out Pentheus' repressed prurient nature and convinces the king to disguise himself as a woman, join those on the mountain, and see for himself the wild nature to which he is so fixedly opposed.

Thus compromised, Pentheus provokes his own and his house's downfall. Were he more stalwart in his convictions, might Pentheus have averted this doom? Or was his flaw borne in his proud unwillingness to accede to Dionysus' godly eminence and domain over an inevitable element of human nature? The end is bloody and horrifically tragic. If there are any shards of hope or optimism to draw out of the morass, they are not evident to my eye.

But tragedies are not conceived to provide hope and optimism, but to instill instructive fear, to lead us away from the fatal errors committed by the likes of Oedipus, Electra and Pentheus. Note that unlike other Greek tragedies, the central character in The Bacchae is a god, and therefore his nature is, by definition, immutable, so that the flaw is not his, but in those who believe they can circumvent him.

If The Bacchae fell short of SITI Company's proclaimed wish to prompt hope and optimism, they nonetheless mounted a powerful play that grabbed attention from the first beat. Its stunning stage imagery was the product of director Ann Bogart's blocking of the actors, one moment striking martial formations, another, loose and whimsical. Bogart inserted humor in unexpected places, such as the entry of five of the Dionysian celebrants cradling different varieties of wine bottles (and one, a one box), their unsubtle telltale sign of what has been occupying them, and in the easy rapport between the blind seer Tiresias and Cadmus, founder of Thebes and grandfather of Pentheus. The tale was set in a stark landscape created by scenic and lighting designer Brian H Scott. Darron L. West and composer Erik Sanko furnished a continuous underscore that affirmed the constant life force fueling the narrative.

The cast was clothed in costumes by Lena Sands that bent gender and class conventions, with anachronistic fashions that erased distance between this ancient story and modern times. The soldiers entered, played by both male and female actors, wearing midi-length skirts and men's suit coats, sans a shirt beneath and buttoned below the breasts, and sneakers, each carrying a spear taller than themselves. Dionysus, played with electrifying panache by Ellen Lauren, sported tight-fitting plum pants, a scarlet camisole, and a wide open black trench coat, all in contrast to her wildly unkempt yellow hair.

Lauren imbued Dionysus with an androgynous quality, to make clear that seeking pleasure and release from life's burdens provided by wine are neither male nor female in nature, but human needs. Breaking the fourth wall, she spoke directly to the audience, sometimes inviting us to partake in her bacchanal. Lauren's cocky swagger and manic energy were riveting. When, in the closing moments, Dionysus hurled punishments at the transgressors, she became a tempest of righteousness, brooking no mercy for those who discredit her powers.

As Pentheus, Donnell E. Smith conveyed the king's steely authoritarianism, while slipping into weakness by giving in to his desire to glimpse the outlawed forbidden fruits. Akiko Aizawa gave an amazing performance as Agave in a lengthy segment spoken wholly in Japanese. With no translation, the musicality of the language conveyed its own meaning, while her tone of voice, facial expressions, and posture completely conveyed her meaning, and descent from a wine-fueled emotional peak to the deepest valley of despair as she recognized her part in her son's brutal death. Stephen Duff Webber portrayed Cadmus as an elder statesman fraught by his powerless to prevent the fall of his house, while Barney O'Hanlon was persuasive as the seer Tiresias.

There was a pageantry about the production that set it at a distance, while the modernized costumes and insertion of contemporary references, and even a shout out to Minneapolis customized for this audience, strove to tell us this story is not mired in the ruins of ancient temples, but speaks to our current moment. The two worked somewhat at odds against each other, so that even at its most impassioned, The Bacchae had a chilliness to it. Visually, it was a work of genius, well worth seeing for the artistry at hand. Its attention to ceremony, though, made it less satisfying as a source of insights or expression of feelings.

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), The Bacchae's run ended early, effective March 13, 2020. For more information on STI Company, visit siti.org. For more information on Guthrie Theater, visit GuthrieTheater.org.

Playwright: Euripides, created by the company; Director: Anne Bogart; Translation: Aaron Poochigian; Scenic and Lighting Design: Brian H Scott; Costume Design: Lena Sands; Sound Design: Darron L. West; Composer: Erik Sanko; Dramaturgs: Helene Foley and Norman Frisch; Choral Consultant: Kelly Maurer; Production Stage Manager: Alyssa Escalante; Stage Manager: Ellen M. Lavaia; Assistant Director: Nana Dakin; Assistant Scenic and Lighting Designer: Joey Guthman; Rehearsal Director: Gian Murray Gianino; Executive Director: Michelle Preston; Producing Director: Megan E Carter; Guthrie Assistant Director: Addie Gorlin; Guthrie Design Assistants: Erin Belpedio (lighting), Kevin Springer (sound).

Cast: Akiko Aizawa (Agave), J. Ed Araiza (soldier), Will Bond (second messenger), Leon Ingulsrud (first messenger), Ellen Lauren (Dionysus), Barney O'Hanlon (Tiresias), Roshni Shukla (chorus), Donnell E. Smith (Pentheus), Samuel Stricklen (chorus), Stephen Duff Webster (Cadmus).


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