This is an unfinished review of a recent The Bacchae production that I began on behalf of Broad Street Review. I abandoned the project as they had run a different Bacchae review before I could submit it. Regardless, I managed to do something pretty fun with it …
The fifth floor of the Walnut Street Theatre is a small, intimate venue, a short course of chair-topped risers in front of a simple stage, one no more than a stretch of cleared floor. Yet, on this miserable rainy Thursday, the risers were filled, the audience gathered to watch one of the world’s great plays.
It is strange how a 2500-year-old play can still speak to audiences, still maintain relevance. Yet that is exactly what Euripides’ The Bacchae does, delivering a complex and surprisingly postmodernist plot focusing on themes of reason versus instinct; of perception versus reality. We find a group of bacchantes here, maenads gathered by Dionysus near Thebes, and they come in conflict with its skeptical king, Pentheus. As the play progresses, the city’s women are drawn into the bacchic orgy, and all the while Dionysus seeks revenge against Pentheus.
Perhaps what’s most satisfying is the way Hamilton, NJ troupe Phenomenal Animals handles Dionysus, the play’s coldly calculating antihero. Here, he appears in the middle of the play, as a result of the chorus involving the audience in ever-greater bacchic ecstasy, a move that makes his presence and character feel much more preternatural, and Pentheus all the more foolish for opposing him.
Indeed, this is deliberate on the troupe’s part. BSR reached out to the troupe, and Dionysus himself got back to us, telling us that the idea was that the chorus and audience were colluding to “bring each character to life in real time as they appear in the story,” the chorus “channeling me at the idol they had built.” And when they call to him and channel him into materialization, they “take it a step further and solicit the audience”.
Dionysus is a shrewd god. And the Phenomenal Animals are shrewd players.
If this “The Bacchae” review interests you, come out and see Phenomenal Animals’ next production, a rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tales of the Grotesque and Mysterious,” part of the Fringe Arts Festival, will take place at Brian Sanders’ JUNK, 2040 Christian Street, from September 15th to 24th.