Bogart does Bacchae

Inspired by the recent FX mini-series “Trust” which includes an exceptional portrayal of J. Paul Getty by a mesmerizing Donald Sutherland, I visited the Getty Villa while in Los Angeles last week.

In 1974, Getty told the LA Times, one could “go to Pompeii and Herculaneum and see Roman villas the way they are now — then go to Malibu and see the way they were in ancient times.” The Villa possesses a remarkable collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, surrounded by oleander, bay laurel, boxwood, draping rosemary, reflecting pools and its own amphitheater, along with views of the Pacific Ocean on the horizon.

Photo credit: Melinda Q Battle

But the real treat was attending an evening performance of Euripides’ Bacchae in the Villa’s outdoor theater. The play was still in previews, but you wouldn’t know as this non-stop tour de force seemed honed to a razors edge. The Director, Anne Bogart, has a long list of outstanding plays to her credit, but she succeeded in unseating several of my top theater-going experiences with this single performance.

This 2500 year old play tells the story of Dionysus, god of wine and theater, who becomes angered when the citizens of Thebes deny he is a true god. He sends the women of Thebes, including King Pentheus’s mother Agave, into the mountains to cavort and worship him. Dionysus then convinces Pentheus to dress up as a woman and go spy on the revelers, but when the women spot him, they rip him to pieces. Agave returns to Thebes carrying the the head of Pentheus, believing it to be that of a lion. Her father Cadmus helps her see the truth and the agonizing terror becomes Agave’s punishment.

This was Euripides last play, only performed after his death. Euripides has always been a puzzle and a challenge to pin down. He was considered a religious sceptic, yet often praised the gods. In Bacchae, Dionysus is horribly manipulative and vindictive, which doesn’t exactly line up with what you’d expect from the god of pleasure.

But Anne Bogart brilliantly interprets the play as being fundamentally a question of hubris. As Bogart explained in a recent interview, this play has parallels to our politics today. Those who fail to recognize the truth (Dionysus is indeed a god), puffing themselves up with conceit and behaving arrogantly, may well eventually pay the price.

The play opens with the 1956 recording of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You. Enter Dionysus as a Jaggeresque rockstar leaping across the stage, punching the air as the vocal sputterings of Hawkins perfectly capture the menacing folly of this god. Ellen Lauren, founding member and co-artistic director for the SITI company, plays Dionysus and is a marvel to behold. Not only does Lauren supplant the traditionally-male god with an androgynous electricity, but she does so with an intensely eruptive ferocity and humor. She seems not of this world.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz - Los Angeles Times

The diverse chorus members wear only black jackets, pleated black skirts, and skate board shoes. Each member of the chorus carries a long “fennel” staff used throughout the performance to punctuate, create symmetry and provide a compelling staccato imagery.

Eric Berryman is a wonderfully haughty and pompous King Pentheus, all self-important and arrogant, who then turns delightfully humorous as he enters in the second act dressed in full drag, both coy and titillated, while Sammy Davis, Jr. belts out “I Gotta be Me.”

But it is Akiko Alzawa’s performance as Agave, delivered entirely in Japanese, that nails the audience to the amphitheater cushions. She enters as an ecstatic lion-killing warrior, and transforms into a mother who knows she has murdered her own son. This is a wrenching scene delivered in a foreign language that requires the audience to focus exclusively on the emotional collapse of the actor without distractions. Sheer genius and expertly executed.

Dionysus reappears dressed in a janitor‘s’ uniform dragging a cart and broom. The god is here to clean up the mess and deliver a few final words of admonition. Cadmus slithers away (now turned into a snake). In the final scene, Dionysus returns in rockstar apparel as the music reprises Hawkins and a wild-eyed Dionysus darts about thrusting her arms at the audience screaming, “I get you!”

Whether this play foretells the fate of today’s kings or not, theatergoers in New York will be able to enjoy this production October 3–7 at BAM’s Harvey Theater.

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