Euripides’ “The Bacchae” is one of the most famed and poignant of all the Greek tragedies. It is about the power of human instinct, about the orgiastic energy seething within us all, about the folly of relying too heavily on one’s own reason and calculated will — a folly that brings about, in the play’s final scene, a stunning tragic image that has survived in the minds of audiences since ancient Greek times.
Michael Schulman’s ’03 production of the tragedy this weekend is a far cry from Euripides’ at once enthralling and sobering portrait of human nature. In this “Dionysian Rock Odyssey,” as the playbill pegs it (even from the start, the cultural and theatrical references are confused and conflated), Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, is an ’80s-style rock star replete with electric guitar and creepy eye-shadow. Pentheus, the prince of Thebes who is eventually punished for his autocratic will and his refusal to recognize Dionysus as a god, is a figure straight out of contemporary hip-hop culture.
Teiresias is draped in a sort of plastic cape and wears sunglasses coated in silver paint — so that this blind seer, a character so important in ancient Greek tragedy, becomes quite ridiculous. The women of Thebes who have been hypnotized by Dionysus’ orgiastic energy seem to present a mish-mash, modern appropriation of both traditional Indian and Egyptian dress and dance. And that mysterious energy itself is represented not by wine and drunken revelry, as in the original, but by the modern drug ecstasy and the teenage rave culture that lauds it.
Indeed, it seems that even spectacular acting couldn’t pull this chaos of cultural reference and representation into anything consistent — so that the lack of impressive acting here is not, surprisingly, particularly disappointing. Matt Conaty ’03 as Kadmos (Pentheus’ grandfather) is bland. Pentheus (Patrick Knighton ’05) himself is repetitive in his faux-ghetto intonation. Chris Carter Sanderson as Teiresias has impressive stage presence but little range. And though Ross Wachsman’s ’02 portrayal of the god of ecstasy as an eery, sensual David Bowie is smooth and is most certainly the best in the play, by the end his husky, lisping monotone seems cloying and unoriginal. The dance and music that are woven into the show are also rather shoddily put together — so that if anything this all seems to be proving that the artistic and cultural movements of the modern era are none too impressive or appealing.
The final point of this jumbled conflation of contemporary culture and text (the script of the “Rock Odyssey” is only based on Euripides’ play and includes original text and music, poetry by William Blake and Alan Ginsberg, and the ballads of Bjork and David Bowie) is not clear. Are we supposed to take away from all this that the lessons of the Greek tragedy carry over into modern times, that even in the 21st century and the hodgepodge culture that comprises this era we may all be really a Pentheus, or a Kadmos, or an ecstatic Bacchant? We knew that already — the continuing existence of Euripides’ play in the collective consciousness and its continuing success on the contemporary stage stand testament enough. And so that point alone, it seems, does not quite justify this unpleasant two-hour extravaganza of modern absurdity, a version of a great and lasting Greek tragedy whose playbill must warn us that “this production will feature strobe lights and fog effects.”