Bakkhai to the future

Shaking the Tree's visually ravishing new version of Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy ripples nervously down the centuries to now

Don’t aggravate the gods.

This seems like sound advice even today, when the universe is out of kilter enough without purposely sticking a thumb in its eye. How much more sage must it have seemed back in fifth-century B.C.E. Greece, when the pantheon of deities had all the flaws of humans, but were infinitely more powerful, and therefore infinitely more dangerous, and infinitely more used to getting their way?

This holds true particularly if the god in question is named Dionysus (or Bacchus, as the Romans had it), god of wine, fertility, religious ecstasy, ritual madness, and – oh, yes: that giddy and unstable illusion called theater. Dionysus could throw a whale of a party, but he was hardly known for his reasoned approach to problem-solving. He was a vindictive sort, and he bore a grudge, and he gathered devotees who were in his thrall, no matter how cruel or ridiculous or unspeakable his demands might be. If that sounds familiar – well, at a time when the world cries out for Apollonian restraint, here we are, captured in a Dionysian frenzy in our culture and politics, swept up in a foolish and destructive nightmare of blind impulse.

Bakkhai: tellers of the tale. Photo: Meg Nanna

Which may or may not have been why director Samantha Van Der Merwe chose to start the new season at her Shaking the Tree Theatre with Bakkhai, a play you might know better under the title The Bacchae or The Bacchantes, in a new version by the poet and classicist Anne Carson. Euripides’ tragedy, which premiered in 405 B.C.E. in the appropriately named Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, carries a scent of heedless yet inevitable doom that seems to have parallels to the present day, although it’s hardly a perfect fit: It’s tough to blame the gods for our all-too-human current predicament.

Either way, Shaking the Tree’s Bakkhai is a neatly contrived roller-coaster of a show, a smooth and sometimes scary fun ride that starts where it starts and carries on, with no breaks, to its bitter and propulsive end. The trouble, in brief, is this: Dionysos (in the spelling that Carson adopts) is in a snit because his human family, including his royal cousin King Pentheus and Pentheus’ mom, Agave, don’t believe he’s actually a god, even though his father is Zeus himself. Dionysos vows revenge, which includes driving Agave and her sisters mad, and scattering them in the mountains to watch his ritual orgies. There’s more, of course, but that’s enough for now.

Van Der Merwe is known for her highly visual, total-theater approach to directing in an intimate space, and this Bakkhai is a ravishing thing to see. She’s split the stage in Shaking the Tree’s warehouse space, creating a runway stage with risers on either side holding seats for about 60 audience members total. As you walk in and grab a chair Dionysos, in the form of actor Aries Osiris, is already in place, sitting still and regal on a throne at one end, with painted fingernails longer than a unicorn’s horn and a flourish of fabric that flows halfway down the runway. Osiris sits and sits and waits and waits (after all, what’s time to a god?) until the play begins. This is a fluid, feline god, male and female at the same time and something somehow beyond, a potent package of possibilities. Dionysos has taken human form, and yet any fool ought to see this isn’t exactly little everyday Donnie from up the road. There are, of course, more than a few fools actively not seeing, not least petulant King Pentheus (a craftily brittle Zak Westfall), whose plans to put this stranger in his place fall vastly short of immortal scope. Brilliant masks come into play, and vivid costumes (designed by Elyse Grimaldi) that tell their own tales, and constant sound (Matt Weins) that provides a melodramatic underpinning. Van Der Merwe and company have brought together the play’s conflicting impulses toward large-scale spectacle and intimate interplay and fused them tight and tense.

Aries Osiris as Dionysos. Photo: Meg Nanna

Carson’s script includes a few anachronisms and contemporary jokes, and that worried me a bit when I read about it beforehand. I shouldn’t have worried. Her version follows the original closely if not religiously, and the occasional updates, as delivered by Van Der Merwe’s crack cast, come across as quick and breezy jokes that ripple harmlessly and cast small glints of light. It’s a fluid, well-honed cast, all headed in the same direction: Kelly Godell as the hapless Agave; Caleb Sohigian as a wryly can-do political operator; Gary Powell as an old hand who attempts to play both sides against the middle; and the amused and amusing and utterly reliable David Bodin as Kadmos, Pentheus’s grandfather and the only one who recognizes Dionysos as a god.

Ah, and the Bakkhai, after whom the play is named! What a crew – Nicole Accuardi, James Dixon, Tamera Lyn, Gerrin Mitchell, Jessica Tidd – a Greek chorus that is fully integrated into the action, commenting on the characters and pushing the narrative forward, prowling about the theater, declaiming from the risers where the audience is sitting, crouching casually beside the crowd. This is ritual come indoors to play, and to sing: The Bakkhais’ musical delivery of their lines casts the play’s imagination back to the wandering poet or poets who created the Homeric tales, chanting them from town to town and (most likely) leaving it to someone else to write them down. Whatever combination of poet-balladeers created The Iliad and The Odyssey did so on the foundation of an even older tradition of Olympian tales, and Euripides wrote at one more step removed, commenting sharply and sometimes savagely on the myths that had been handed down. And here we are, with Anne Carson and Shaking the Tree, one more step down the line.

I’ll not tell you more about how things play out in Bakkhai, because rituals have their own pace and logic and should be allowed to reveal themselves in their own sweet time. Suffice to say that pikes are involved, and smears of blood, and half-mad keening, and snakes-in-the-making, and a head ripped rudely from its shoulders, and … well, you get the ancient Greek picture.

The scariest thing about Bakkhai is the way it slyly yet surely tips our sympathies – not to torn-to-shreds Pantheus or his blood-crazed mother Agave or even to the old-school holdouts Kadmos and Teiresias but to the unspeakably cruel and power-crazed Dionysos himself. He’s a seducer, and a winner, and everybody loves a winner, even if we only know he’s a winner because he constantly tells us he’s a winner. That’s a scare that ripples down the centuries and lands with a fatalistic plop in our contemporary laps.

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