August 13, 2009
The Bacchae, on and off-stage
Last night I saw a preview performance of The Bacchae, the non-Shakespeare play of this summer's Shakespeare in the Park season. If you're not familiar with this play, let me give you some of the more spectacular highlights. (The play is 2,500 years old, but, OK: spoiler alert.)
The Bacchae includes a posse of drunken, ecstatic, feral women who worship the god Dionysus. They're out there in the woods, orgiastically cavorting and shaking with ecstasy, tearing apart cows with their bare hands and suckling wolf cubs with their milk. There are also instances of these women rushing around and satisfying the lusts of men or something salacious like that. Then at one point, they pull a man in full drag down from a tree and eat him.
Those Greeks! They were some sick, sick, bloody-minded people! Euripides created all this stuff that would make for the greatest movie ever, and one show-stopper of a live theatrical experience. Unfortunately, because this is Greek tragedy, all the action happens off stage. Which is incredibly frustrating. What's the point of having people savagely ripped apart and eaten during wine-fueled orgies if the audience can't see it? With today's production values, Euripides could have been a Dario Argento-esque master of horror.
You're probably familiar with the crazy, blood-thirsty stuff the Bacchae get up to if you watch "True Blood", where I hear some Maenads have been making appearances. (Bacchae and maenads are both female followers of Dionysus.) Or that book The Secret History about a group of preppy kids whose Dionysian rituals lead to their downfall.
Anyway, I liked the play itself. The moral of the story is this: gods do what they want, and if you worship them or spite them, they can (and probably will) mess you up either way. And don't go out and get too wasted or you might accidentally kill your kids.
But I wanted more godlike bacchanalian mojo from Dionysus himself. He's played by Jonathan Groff, who was also in Hair last year and in Spring Awakening (and in those sexy posters.) He played his demigod character as a chilled-out, smug skater/hippie/greaser, wearing some unflattering jeans and a leather jacket. His hair was fittingly in Grecian ringlets. But I would have loved to see him go all-out Rock God, like an early 70's Robert Plant rockstar dynamo.
In last year's production of the play at Lincoln Center, Alan Cumming played Dionysus in drag, and looks like he gave a much more energetic performance:
This production's Dionysus is all too happy to put the handsome Anthony Mackie (above) in drag before sending him off to the feral drunken ladies. Mackie is great in this role: he's transformed from a determined non-believer to a lovely, shyly glamorous drag queen in a purple dress and swishy strawberry blond wig. It's not every actor who would go on stage in a strappy dress and killer heels and walk around clearly enjoying his new prettiness. Considering that earlier this year, Mackie played both Tupac and a member of an Iraq bomb defusing squad this year, I'm very impressed.
In a recent interview in the Times, Mackie discusses the play and various costume changes, and sounds like he's really proud of this role: "I get to don some five-inch wedge stillettos and show girls how it really should be done." Snap!
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