Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Bacchae - University of Washington at Meany Theater

The Bacchae
University of Washington at Meany Theater
Tickets and Info or (206) 543-4880
January 31st - February 11th

In light of the world of Greek tradition, UW’s performance of Euripides’ The Bacchae invites the audience into its world using modern tools to uphold the classical tradition. As the lights dim and the story unfolds, a processional introduction of characters invites the audience to join the story. Dionysus (Elana Wright) then lays out an introductory premise to create a basic mindset, which slowly morphs into a ritualistic ceremony embodied in the play yet also very indicative of the Greek presentational spectacle.

The audience soon discovers that this ceremonial rite is a ritual of the Bacchae, a group of women who have left their homes in Thebes to follow a religious life at the outskirts of the town. Their practices are much opposed by Pentheus, the king of Thebes (Christopher McKeon), who tries to reason with the one who he thinks is their leader, the powerful Dionysus. Through folds of trickery and deceit, Dionysus seeks revenge on the people for turning away from him, resulting in a powerful dawning of realization that shakes the people of Thebes.

The intricate weavings of the tale embody strong issues of religion and the ultimate power it can have over humans. It shows them as possessed creatures in a state of blind frenzy due to the power they follow. In addition, gender roles are switched, presenting women as the dominating power over men who can do nothing to harm them. One more very prevalent relationship addresses the reality of humanity in connection to the divine, in which the divine walks and breathes among humans. All three of these relationships are well signified in the character direction and unique twists. The god Dionysus, a male deity, is here portrayed as a female, whose power is represented in seduction onstage. To increase the interest of such a relationship, the male pronouns are kept, creating an even more dynamic masculinity vs. femininity dichotomy.

With such powerful issues taking form in a passionate performance, the design elements have the potential to greatly complement the actors’ performances; in this production, the design and technical elements are outstanding. The set, designed by Stephen Dobay, is composed of several levels and large doorways, giving an impression of depth and an inability to see exactly what goes on beyond the front presentation. It is industrial, but sparse, and used to great effect; the large metal gate over the stage left doorway is used as an entrance, as a scrim for light effects, as a sound instrument, and, in falling, as a symbol for Dionysus’ destruction of the palace. The lighting, by Melinda M. Short, as well was superb; even before the play begins, the light spots and dapples across the set giving the feeling of entering a shattered world, a feeling that is borne out by the rest of the play. During the show as well the lights sweep along with the story highlighting emotions and actively engaging in the actor/stage dynamic. At the climax of the tale, a ravenous killing was accompanied by a strobe light, and beams of light accentuated the fog clouding the depressed upstage. Mairi Helena Chisholm’s costumes also assist the story and bring out character and meaning. There is a split between light and dark, with the Bacchae and their supporters in darker costumes, Pantheus in blinding white, and others in shades of gray, torn between the two sides. As the play continues, parts of costumes were shed, revealing more and more of the actors as the play reveals more and more of the characters, their actions, and their final destiny. Dionysus’ costume as well is fascinating, an amorphous, diaphanous shape that nearly shows the actor’s body beneath, but not ever completely, just as Dionysus’ motivations are shadowed and hidden for most of the play.

The actors all work as a faultless ensemble, each supporting the other, and each fully committed to their actions and the play. Agave (Maythinee Washington) in particular is fearless on stage, both within her Bacchic frenzy and the grief that follows it. Despite the fact that she is nude for the entire last scene, she remains unaware of this fact and stays committed; she is a person without a shirt rather than a woman showing her breasts. The Maenads, the three women that follow Dionysus and assist him, work as a perfect ensemble within the ensemble, performing intricate dances and movements while talking or singing.

By the end of the show, Dionysus’ motivations have been revealed, and his revenge wreaked upon the city of Thebes and the family at the center of the play. While at the beginning of the play the audience’s sympathies lie with the oppressed Bacchae, Dionysus’ awful revenge brings in a note of questioning and uncertainty; our sympathies shift, and we are left entranced, caught between the power of a god, and pity for a tragic loss.

Review by Rick Skyler and Lia Morgan

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