A ‘Bad Boy’ to Get Your Blood Racing

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Dog days of August slowing you down? Well, the new production of Euripides’ The Bacchae at the Delacorte Theater can set your blood racing again. Directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, the ancient Greek story is alive and kicking with a multi-racial cast.

The last New York staging of The Bacchae was at the 2008 Lincoln Center Festival, with Alan Cumming playing a flamboyant Dionysus in the National Theatre of Scotland production. The problem is that it breezed in and out of the city so quickly that many theatergoers missed the opportunity to see the adapted classic.

Jonathan Groff as bad boy Dionysus with Anthony Mackie, a young, arrogant Pentheus in The Public Theater production of The Bacchae, by Euripides. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jonathan Groff as bad boy Dionysus with Anthony Mackie, a young, arrogant Pentheus in The Public Theater production of The Bacchae, by Euripides. Photo by Joan Marcus

In this current show, Jonathan Groff headlines as Dionysus, the “bad boy” of Mount Olympus. He’s ideally cast as the god of the vine who has come to Thebes to introduce its citizens to his intoxicating brew. Groff looks like a goldilocked Adonis, complete with hip jeans and a leather jacket. Incognito for much of the story, Groff’s Dionysus surreptitiously aims to convert the minds of any Thebans—including his royal cousin Pentheus—who doubt Zeus is his father. And he has an uphill battle. Rumors have spread that his mother fabricated her story about Zeus impregnating her. Worse, she was struck dead by lightning (Hera’s revenge for her husband’s philandering) before his birth. Out of pity, Zeus implanted Dionysus into his own thigh, carrying him to full-term.

In this trim production, Akalaitis mixes dance, mime, speech and song in service to the ultimate god: narrative. She deftly guides us through the old story, translated by Nicholas Rudall, using broad dramatic strokes that delineate the plot and characters without mummifying them. In short, she steers clear of making this a pious exercise, or bogging us down with reverential rituals.

To be sure, the evening belongs to Groff, playing the young Dionysus with a fierce vengeance and a quicksilver mind. His performance in Broadway’s Spring Awakening, which netted a 2007 Tony nomination, and in the Delacorte’s Hair last year were impressive. This time he truly comes into his own as a thespian, quite capable of undertaking a classic Greek role and giving it a contemporary spin. His most stunning moment is when he appears above the “palace” triumphantly gloating over the death of his cousin Pentheus, who has been ripped apart unknowingly by his mother and The Bacchants (he was spying on their revels, dressed as a woman). It’s a bravura show-off speech—and Groff rightly plays it to the hilt.

Like many productions at the Public Theatre, the casting here is colorblind. Anthony Mackie plays the young, arrogant Pentheus, and Joan Macintosh plays his mother, Agave. Other actors featured are Andre De Shields as the blind prophet Teiresias, George Bartenieff as Cadmus, and Karen Kandel as the Chorus Leader. There’s no weak link in this cast. And, incidentally, the dozen actors in the Chorus (all female) are more than just voices embellishing the narrative. In fact, they are really the living theatrical glue that fuses the tragic event into a whole.

John Conklin’s set is as minimalist as it gets: an expanse of open stage with ultra-modern bleacher seats that ominously—and significantly—slope downward. In fact, there’s a late scene that registers with incredible pathos, in which the old prophet Teiresias re-enters the stage, and silently seats himself on a low bleacher as Cadmus drags in the corpse of his grandson Pentheus wrapped in a bloodstained sheet. The visual images, stage business and the idea of Fate powerfully coalesce in this episode and poignantly express the tragedy.

Philip Glass’ original music envelops the production in his famous “sonic weather.” His modern score never overstates itself, but one can detect its haunting presence in each pivotal scene. Kaye Voyce’s costumes for the Chorus go a little overboard with their flaming orange colors and exotic look. They look a bit too sensational next to the modern dress of Dionysus and Pentheus.

To pin down precisely what this drama means is slippery—and it would also diminish the greatness of Euripides’ masterpiece. Suffice it to say that the tragedy can remind us that passion, however destructive it can be in the extreme, is still a sacred part of the human psyche. Moreover, an excess of law-and-order (think of Pentheus’ perverted leadership in Thebes) is just another term for fascism.

One senses that Akalaitis has not only cracked the code of Euripides’ work but has managed to give us a production that whets our appetite for more Greek drama. No doubt this show will be hard to beat.

The Bacchae
At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Through Aug. 30
For free tickets, call 212-967-7555;
limited number of free tickets through a Virtual Line, available at
www.publictheater.org

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