A group of hooded, black-robed figures lined up across the stage, reciting the "Our Father" with rote solemnity. One by one each broke loose from the pack, adding their own individual rhythms and quickly becoming a wildly out-of-control group of swaying and swinging party animals.
With this provocative opening, adapter/director Sheila Morgan used Euripides's The Bacchae to dramatize the evolution of religious worship, from pagan rituals to Christian prayer. It's an interesting backdrop for the battle between Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, and his conservative arch-nemesis, Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes. The two opposing sides of man's nature represented by these two characters bear more than passing resemblances to the confining strictures of organized religion that go against a more free-flowing human spirituality.
While Morgan's text is a crisp adaptation, the additions of current Christian prayers didn't give or take much to or from Euripides's powerful play, and in any case were dropped midway through the proceedings. Likewise, her direction was uneven - sometimes highly stylized, sometimes traditional, leading to an evening of spectacular highs and lows with very little middle ground or sense of purpose. This dichotomy was made painfully clear by the mismatched performances of the two leads: Sam Mercer was fabulous as a hypnotically commanding Dionysus; Kenneth Garson was less than terrific as an eye-rolling, hysterical Pentheus. There was literally no competition between the two, and with the balance of power shifted entirely to Dionysus, the production had virtually no tension. And the scenes of bacchanalian excess were curiously joyless, unappealing with their lewd bumping and grinding.
But there were tantalizing moments when Morgan showed herself a director capable of a thrilling command of the stage, and it was her less-inventive moments that were the most powerful. When Agave, Pentheus's murderous mother, realizes what she has done by killing her son, the simplicity of Leah Herman's performance was shattering. Glenn B. Stoops and Barry Ford, two pros who knew exactly what they were doing, similarly owned their moments with every little gesture, look, and line. And, again, there was that incredibly sexy force at the center of it all, the dynamic Mercer making a very strong case for libidinous revelry.
The outdoor garden at La Plaza Cultural, with its multi-layered, rocky outcroppings, made the perfect setting, further enhanced by Sheila Marie Westfall's toga-inspired costuming and Garson's appropriately lurid floodlighting. Jonathan Heller and Robert Madden provided a pulsating percussion underscoring that did much to give the evening the tension it wasn't getting from the battle between its protagonists.
When it was good, this production of The Bacchae was very, very good. And when it wasn't, well -- why beat a dead horse? The gods must have been pleased in some respect, for with the threat of rain hovering over the evening, the drops did not begin to fall until the very moment the actors cleared the stage after their curtain call. That alone is a sign of something. (Also featuring Alana Gans, Austin Green, Nicole Haywood, Laura Lanman, Lisa Maher, Maria Mason, Sol Medvidofsky, Heather Murdock, Noro Otitigbe, Emily Tuckman. Choreography by Josephine Dorado.)
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita