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A CurtainUp Review
The Bacchae

Their hair was on fire but did not burn.
André De Shields and the Chorus
André De Shields and the Chorus
(Photo: Joan Marcus )

Joanna Akalaitis returns to the Public Theater for the first time since her termination in the early 90's, to direct this play about the god Dionysus (Jonathan Groff) and the price his native land, Thebes, pays for questioning his divinity. Like Dionysus, Akalaitis was an anointed offspring of Zeus (in the form of Joe Papp), who was scorned by the Theban ruling class (in the form of the Public Theater's board). She too traveled to many places, acquiring acolytes along the way. Unlike Dionysus, however, her return to the Public Theater was not unwelcome, and the result does not prompt anything devastating. In fact, it could be said that it's not devastating enough -- this is a pretty unaffecting rendition of The Bacchae, mostly because it is so focused on form over substance that the fundamentals of the story are obscured.

For reasons of mythology and biology too complicated to theorize about in detail here, Dionysus was a mesmerizing god. He enchanted everyone in his path with a universal sex appeal. In order to make sense for the audience, this spell must be cast across the fourth wall. Here, however, Ms. Akalaitis has directed Mr. Groff to play the part as a vain punk, taking human form in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, and never seducing the audience at all. These are familiar trappings of Akalaitis's approach to Greek theater, as is the microphone Groff is asked to drag around, but they don't make sense here. We don't much like Dionysus at the beginning, so we are not shocked by the gruesome turn of events that will play out ninety minutes later. Much of the very fine acting we see in the intervening period is lost on us, because it is found in scenes that feel unearned.

The other major debilitating choice in this production is to absurdly over-emphasize the chorus. When not singing or dancing to Philip Glass's ever-present score, in orange costumes in which it would be hard to hide, these Bacchants can usually be found on the cascade of bleachers that are the centerpiece of the set, visually commenting on the action, another Akalaitis signature that does not serve this production well.

Groff is properly cast here only in Akalaitis's misguided conception of the play. He is an engaging actor, and can't really be faulted for conveying what was obviously asked of him. Ditto for Anthony Mackie, whose Pentheus ought to be a young, rash but ultimately impressionable monarch, but is here none of the above. Groff and Pentheus try hard to make the scene in which the latter falls in the former's spell believable, but the cards are stacked against them. Later in the play, the same fate befalls the great George Bartenieff as Pentheus's grandfather, Cadmus, and the almost-as good Joan MacIntosh as Pentheus's mother, Agave. Their horrific scene, in which Cadmus forces a possessed Agave to realize she's holding her son's decapitated head in her hands, is wonderfully played, but can't be justified by what has come before it. The equally excellent André De Shields, as the prophet Teiresias, doesn't even fare that well in his scene with Bartenieff: their scene is mostly lost in the shuffle. It says something about this production that the closest it gets to the catching fire is in Rocco Sisto's terrifying messenger's report. Indeed, otherwise, we see much fire but no burn.

Since form seems so important to what's on display in the park in this show, I should mention that the set by John Cocklin is both wise in its simplicity and well-rooted in its style. Jennifer Tipton's lighting is as strong as any I recall seeing in the park, and adds much. I'm not quite as enthusiastic about Kate Voyce's costumes, which presumably intend a statement by mixing conservative modern business suits for the Theban ruling class with the flowing orange of the chorus (not to mention Dionysus's Urban Outfitters shopping spree), but here again it is hard to fault a designer for following a director's lead.

Form is also heavily dictated here by Philip Glass's music. It is extensive not only in the overly-long chorus sections (a fair portion of which are sung here), but also in songs rather clumsily provided to Mr. Groff to sing. In addition, there is abundant underscoring. Like much of this production, I quite enjoyed much of this music on its own basis. But did it serve the story well? Like much of this production, no. This is an event in which the parts substantially exceed their sum.

The Bacchae
by Euripides, translated by Nicholas Rudall
Directed by Joanne Akalaitis
with April Armstrong, George Bartenieff, Sullivan Corey, André De Shields, Marisa Echeverrķa, Jonathan Groff, Tara Hugo, Jennifer Ikeda, Karen Kandel, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Alexa Kryzaniwsky, Vella Lovell, Joan MacIntosh, Anthony Mackie, Nana Mensah, Steven Rishard, Ereni Sevasti, Elena Shaddow, Rocco Sisto, Han Tang
Set Design: John Conklin
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Soundscape: Darron West
Original Music: Philip Glass
Choreographer: David Neumann
Running Time: 1 hours and 30 minutes, with no intermission
Delacorte Theater, Central Park (enter park at 81st St/CPW or 79th St/5th Av)
Public Theater website: Opening August 24, 2009, closing August 30, 2009
TUES - SUN @8 except 8/25; FREE
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 8/21/09 performance
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