Section: Arts

Bakkhai features debauchery and dichotomies galore

Bakkhai features debauchery and dichotomies galore

The theme at the Bolton Theater this year seems to be the merging of worlds. The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky, staged in October, fused an ordinary Scottish boarding school with a monarchy gone horribly wrong, while Euripides’s Bakkhai, performed last weekend, featured the mystical realm of a Greece plagued by gods combatting a modern disbelief in the supernatural. But where the worlds in Chucky coexisted, seamlessly transitioning from high school to quasi-medieval kingdom to some liminal region in which both manifested, those in Bakkhai were constantly at war. Also known as The Bacchae, The Bacchai or The Bacchantes, all deriving from Bacchus, which derives from Bromio (another name for Dionysos), Bakkhai refers to the female followers of Dionysus, the god of fertility, wine and ecstasy.

Bacchic revelries had thrown Thebes into a tizzy, and Dionysos (Issa Polstein ’15) wanted to capitalize on the excitement to ensure he was acknowledged as a god. Elders Kadmos (Alex Kirshy ’17) and Teiresias (Adam Zaremsky ’15) led the Theban believers, welcoming Dionysos with open arms. Kirshy and Zaremsky were a fun pair, especially in one of the play’s more comedic sequences during which they tried to avoid Kadmos’s grandson Pentheus (Max Pescherine ’17). Both roles required a transition from the comedic to the serious. Teiresias seemed like a kooky old man, but a straight-comedy actor would have thrown off the solemn tone necessary for later scenes. Zaremsky’s past performances proved him to be most adept at Teiresias’s style of comedy, and here he managed to juggle zaniness and gravity with impressive finesse.

Similarly, the role of Kadmos was mostly perfunctory, but Kirshy gave him emotional weight, making his silly antics the result of an affect acquired through age and experience rather than diminished intellect. Thus, at the end of the play, his previous behavior did not conflict with his newfound sorrow but exacerbated it, making it all the more heartbreaking. The tension peaked when Agave (Julia Greer ’15) finally realized that she had murdered her son, Pentheus, and she and Kadmos attempted to reassemble his dismembered body. Greer’s performance was haunting, and in that moment established Dionysos as an antagonist.   

Dichotomies infested this play. Euripides intended a few, cultural context provides some more, Carl R. Mueller’s translation aptly adds another for good measure, and the production’s director and Assistant Professor of Drama Ben Viccellio ’98 seemed to have made it his mission to emphasize as many as possible. Most significant were those relating to Dionysos, the core of the play; Euripides’s depiction had conflicting characterizations. The chorus of bakkhai conveyed a Dionysos who was kind and carefree, concerned only with pleasure. But the character Dionysos was angry and vengeful and focused on a single, prideful goal. This made Polstein a curious choice. Certainly as far as appearance and costume, he embodied both versions submitted, but when it came to embodying the behaviors, there was a disconnect. The instances of playfulness felt colored by something much more solemn. Likewise, the bursts of anger had something holding them back as well. What for a traditional character should have been a necessary through line was out of place. But this Dionysos was a character designed to be mismatched, and Polstein’s performance emulated this erratic depiction, highlighting it in a roundabout way.

Dionysos serves as the crux of another dichotomy: that of Dionysian and Apollonian attitudes. In this way, Dionysos opposes Pentheus, the Apollonian representative. Viccellio emphasized this through costuming: those with the favor of Bacchus were garbed in traditional Greek outfits, while Pentheus’s mooks wore suits and generally resembled the Secret Service.

The majority of the plot revolves around Dionysos attempting to convince Pentheus of his divinity. Some of the middle sections of the almost two-hour play were almost tedious — lulls in the action (not that much happened on stage at all, per standard Greek dramatists) left little for actors to work with — but there was almost always some staging or visual trickery to hold attention.

It wasn’t until the end, though, that the impact of the play became apparent. Dionysos’s fury toward Pentheus’s was revealed to have no bounds, and the punishment he inflicted on Pentheus, Kadmos and Agave (Pentheus’ smother) was horrifying even to his followers. Compounded by the atmosphere (magnificent and dynamic lighting utilizing shadows, immersive use of sound, and a creepy chorus), the moment was powerful. And the words of Pentheus’ guard, after seeing the havoc wreaked by Dionysos, returned hauntingly: “Wisdom is knowing the will of the gods and doing as they ask. There is nothing wiser for man.”

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