How many plays written today will still be revived in 2414 years’ time? Euripides’ The Bacchae was first performed in Athens in 405 BC and has been pretty constantly in production somewhere ever since.
A stunning new version written by Bryan Doerries now playing at the open-air theater in Marcus Garvey Park, reveals how relevant the play’s themes of the dangers of extremism whether orgies of drinking and sex or authoritarian leadership still are. The Greek tragedy is a fine choice for The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 20th anniversary show under Carl Cofield’s insightful direction.
As fireflies twinkle round the stage and fireworks pop nearby, Dionysus, the god of wine and the son of Zeus makes a rock star style entrance. Jason C. Brown kitted out in leather, gold high tops, a studded cod piece and long dread locks is every inch the superstar playing a festival. He is accompanied by his female followers, here called The Baquettes, an updating of the Bacchae of the title, writhing and snapping selfies to the heavy chords of Allicyn Yafee’s guitar.
Dionysus is back in town to settle a score – he wants revenge as the King, Pentheus, refuses to worship him as he doesn’t believe that he is the son of Zeus. To make his point, Dionysus puts all the local women under a spell that sends them into a frenzy of sex, drink and dancing up on a nearby hill. RJ Foster gives a commanding performance as Pentheus who does not take kindly to the women’s antics and Dionysus’ influence.
From here, Dionysus zaps a few thunderbolts and generally causes mayhem as only a god can while Pentheus wrestles with this new challenge to his power. Cooler heads in the shape of the blind seer Tiresias and the former king, Cadmus, played by Brian D. Coats and Charles Bernard Murray try to persuade Pentheus to be less dictatorial. “It’s not your job to force women to be chaste…” Tiresias advises, “Do not be too confident that force dominates human affairs.” The sentiment resonates at a time when decisions are being made across the US about abortion rights for women.
All this takes place on a set built of multi-level scaffolding interspersed with screens where images are sometimes projected – the set is by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader. As the tragic tale unfolds to a hideous end wrought by Dionysus lust for vengeance, the Bacchae dance and sing. The dancers are members of the Elisa Monte company and the choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fischer centers the power and control of these women. The three singers, Lori Vega, Gabrielle Djenné and Rebecca Ana Peña, pound out some glam rock-style anthems that serve as the Greek chorus.
At these moments, the play has overtones Jesus Christ Superstar. While Pentheus’s experiment with dressing as a woman in order to spy on the women Dionysus has bewitched provides one of the play’s many humorous and contemporarily relevant moments.
Sitting in the open air in the amphitheater under a sliver of a moon in Harlem, the endurance of Euripides play sends shivers down the spine. It’s not hard to imagine that Dionysus final vengeful act provoked the same reaction of horror in the original Athenian audience as it does today.
Andrea Patterson gives a heart-wrenching performance as Agaue, Dionysus’ aunt, when she realizes what the Bacchanalian frenzy has made her do. The tragic end is redolent of many modern mothers weeping at the scene of a senseless death. Euripides message also resonates down the centuries that neither tyranny nor unbridled passion and indulgence are the answer. As Tiresias says: “Never should man think he is above the law.”
New York’s open-air performances are a summer treat and what’s more you can see The Bacchae for free and with no waiting in a ticket lottery line.