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REVIEW: Shocking Modern Mashup in The Bacchae (Guthrie Theater/SITI Company)

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s presentation of SITI Company’s production of The Bacchae by Euripides. Photo by Dan Norman. Note: Shortly before press, the Guthrie Theater cancelled the remaining performances of The Bacchae due to public health concerns.

The Guthrie Theater presents the classical Greek drama The Bacchae by Euripides. The play is performed by the SITI Company, a theatre group out of New York City that stands-out as an innovative theatre ensemble, devising avant-garde works through a collaborative workshop process. Director Anne Bogart described their rehearsals as a collective freeing of the imagination “allowing for conceptual leaps of faith and associative thinking.” However, the company did not succeed in grasping the full creative potential of Euripides’ poetic drama.

In Greek drama, the chorus is an important component – perhaps the most important. In The Bacchae, the chorus is imbued with special emphasis because it takes on a special character as the titular wild, bacchanal women from Thebes who worship Dionysus – and, through orgiastic rites, whip themselves into such a frenzy they could kill someone.

Some of the company’s planned intentions are spelled out in a video titled The Making of The Bacchae. In this, Leon Ingulsrud, a performer and one of SITI Company’s co-artistic directors, said, “The violence of the action…is much wilder in our imaginations than it could ever be in any other form.” The chorus performance at the Guthrie, however, does not reflect a wild imagination. Instead, the chorus tends to slow the pace of the drama and dissipates any dramatic tension. The movement work is also underwhelming and without enthusiasm. Vocals consists mostly of speaking in unison which flattens the rhythm and emphasis of the dramatic poetry.

The chorus of The Bacchae. The SITI Company production used a translation by Aaron Poochigian. Photo by Dan Norman.

Ellen Lauren’s performance of the lead character, Dionysus (the Greek god of wine and debauchery), is a creative counterpoint to the mundane performance of the chorus. Lauren portrays the son of Zeus as a cross-cultural, ambiguously gendered, extremely ostentatious, and kinetically expressive show stopper. She breaks-up the poetic monologues of Euripides into packets of lyrical phrasing, punctuated with jumps, provocative poses, and mugging. Lauren shows a great sense of improvisational humor when she breaks the Fourth Wall and interacts with individual audience members. Her costuming is also vibrant, colorful, and prone to flapping about when she races around the stage.

Lauren’s scene with Tiresias (Barney O’Hanlon) is an unexpectedly moving encounter. Tiresias is a blind oracle who spent half his life as a woman and half as a man and, thus, no stranger to the mythological world. But O’Hanlon’s Tiresias seems wide-eyed and mesmerized that he is actually conversing with an Olympian god.

Pentheus, played marvelously by Donnell E. Smith, makes a dramatic entrance through panels in the background. He exudes hubris from every pore, wearing dazzling royal clothes with an equally dazzling smile. He is supremely confident when he imprisons Dionysus for proclaiming what he believes to be a fraudulent divine identity. Ultimately, this is the fatal mistake that brings tragedy upon himself and his royal family.

Akiko Aizawa (Agave), J. Ed Araiza (Soldier) and Leon Ingulsrud (First Messenger) in the Guthrie Theater’s presentation of SITI Company’s production of The Bacchae by Euripides. Photo by Dan Norman.

Akiko Aizawa, as Agave the wife of Cadmus, is also an exceptional bright spot in the performance. As she speaks her monologue in her native Japanese, her meaning is perceived in her vocal expression and gestures. Cadmus, on the other hand, played by Stephen Duff Webber, recites his lines much less effectively, standing immobile center stage. When it is revealed that he will be transformed into a serpent as punishment for his heresy against Dionysus, Cadmus doesn’t show a ripple of emotion.

At the play’s end, Dionysus enters dressed as a facility maintenance person with a large trash barrel. He proceeds with cleaning up after the tragic events of the play. Ellen Lauren’s Dionysus comes across as a modern incarnation of the god, but also channeling an awareness of something very ancient. The SITI Company is successful in this shocking mash-up of ancient with modern – a theatrical image for the most avid fan of avant-garde theatre.

Further performances of The Bacchae at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis have been cancelled due to Coronavirus-related public health concerns.

Ellen Lauren as Dionysus. The production features scenic and lighting design by Brian H Scott, costume design by Lena Sands, sound design by Darron L West, and composition by Erik Sanko. Photo by Dan Norman.
Dan Reiva