Zak Westfall

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.

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