Bacchae Redux

by Anthony Pennino · August 13, 2014

The American Bard Theater Company has brought its adaptation Bacchae Redux to this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. Adapted by Jack Herholdt and directed by Michael Heitzler, this revision of Euripides’s work brings the clash between the Greek demi-god Dionysus and King Pentheus of Thebes somewhat into the modern era. And it is upon that “somewhat” that the problems with the production hinge.

The act of adaptation is more a product of alchemy than science. No two adaptions develop in exactly the same way, and few rules apply generally. Here, Bacchae Redux does not ever really commit to anything and thus is neither fish nor fowl. There are a smattering of contemporary references – the media, Macy’s etc. – but they do not fully integrate the play into our contemporary world; the play has its other foot very much in the original period. The creative team attempt to graft on modern feminist concerns as well as the politics of gender orientation – both valid approaches with antecedents in the text – but do not fully commit to these either. The greatest and most glaring omission, however, is that of a sense of danger. Euripides forged a dark theatrical experience that exposed the overwhelming passions lurking just beneath the thin veneer of civilization, an experience by and large missing here.

The company on stage has not been directed to feel or experience the visceral terror and danger overwhelming Thebes. Six women of the bacchae serve as chorus; they have chosen to follow Dionysus and are not bewitched. Their rituals resemble more a be-in from the early 1970’s than the almost animalistic frenzy described by Euripides. Lovely tableaus have been constructed for the bacchae. A number of the bacchae themselves come across as being quite nice. Neither “lovely” nor “nice” should describe the bacchae. One member of the bacchae should not be concerned with whether other members get make-overs. They should be the very manifestation of, to borrow from Yeats, “a terrible beauty”.

The one exception here is Herholdt himself, who plays Dionysus. Whatever difficulties he may have encountered with the script, Herholdt as an actor turns in an electric performance. Masterfully embodying the power, capriciousness, and other-worldly rage of a Greco-Roman deity, he conveys in his very stillness the peril that Dionysus presents to the world. When not on stage, he is sorely missed. There is a kernel of a good idea here in what Herholdt has constructed. The best elements would make for a compelling one-man show about Dionysus; it would have moved the adaptation further away from the original's structure but in some respects would have been truer to the original's spirit.

Special mention must also be made of Nina Fernandez, who plays one of the bacchae. Ms. Fernandez -- in a seamless blend of talent and craft -- delivers a monologue about leaving husband and family that is raw, powerful, and emotionally wrenching.





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