a bloody bacchae

BACCHAE Directed by Kathryn Walker At Agassiz Theatre Through Nov.8

Plutarch relates how, during a 53 B.C. performance of the Bacchae, the victorious Parthian general Sillaces approached the stage, carrying the head of Crassus, and handed it to Jason of Tralles, the actor playing Agave: Jason went on, apparently without missing a beat, and the play ended smoothly, if messily.

Though the cast of the current production playing at the Agassiz doesn't have to cope with such a nasty surprise, one suspects the actors would be able to rise to the occasion. From Dionysus' prologue/monologue (delivered by Winsome Brown '95 with fitting malice) to Agave's coming-to (acted out by Catherine Ingman '98 with fitting horror), the progress of the play benefits from the actors' uniform intensity of focus.

This was especially impressive on opening night, in the presence of so much appalling laughter from the audience.

Not all of the laughter was inappropriate, though. Cadmus (David Gullette '62) and Tiresius (Bashir Salhuddin '98) are both Theban wise men and comic duo. Their stichomythic exchanges even suggests lighthearted pastoral, but both are still capable of a rich gravity. I only thought that Cadmus' portentous admonition to Pentheus (of the fate of Acteon, ripped apart by his own hounds-Cadmus' own great-nephew!) was too droll.

Brett Egan '99 brings to the role of Pentheus a cool, James Woodsy arrogance that is quite fresh. His rapport with Brown is excellent. But though he's always smouldering, there are moments where his even-voiced, no-eye-contact persona seem better suited to an O'Neill soliloquy than to Euripides. He seems appropriately bewildered in sylvan drag.

Brown is continually threatening to steal the show. As sleek as the Maenad dancers, as articulate as Gullette, she walks and speaks as one in control of Pandemonium.

Director Kathryn Walker's choice of cuts in the C.K. Williams translation make this production an affair of many monologues. Tim Foley and Scott M. Brown, as the first and second messengers, deliver their hefty chunks of script with appeal. Foley's description of the first sortie on Mt. Cithaeron is proof of a working knowledge of the rhetorical value of adynata (women suckling wolves, milk spurting from the ground, and other such impossibilities).

Brown's monologue, pivotal, since it relates the dismemberment of Pentheus--which was, wink-wink, the denouement--manages to avoid Joe Friday prosaics. It has of course a blow-by-blow, factual aspect, but Brown illuminates its sorrow and terror.

About that severed head--no Roscian horror here. The thing in its net bears an unhappy resemblance to a holiday ham. But the over-the-top quantity of fake gore painted onto Agave and her costume helps to close the gap between prop and reality.

Ingham capitalizes on what makes Agave touching--so proud of what she thought was a great triumph, the mother, in perhaps the first truly independent act of her life, blindly brings death and ruin. Her closing "where, then, shall I go?" is the eternal intonation of the tragic world.

The production's effort to capture the busy feel of a Greek performance is successful, developed on three fronts: the musical, the rhapsodical, and the terpsichorean.

William Harper opts for a kind of thorough-composition in his score, which is at its best in moments of great rhythmical complexity (in the choruses) and less successful when merely and synthesizedly evocative (birdcalls, roars, moans).

Harper computerizes Walker's voice as she reads the choral odes, and the effect (an intense metallic breathiness) is reinforced by a tandem live recitation from two hypostylized eastern figures (Alice B., who gets to sport that big trippy mask, and Daniel Sussner '00, whose turn here doesn't compare to his work in Baal last year). The three-part slam definitely commands attention (and the poetry is gorgeous), but too often has to compete with the dancing Maenads for our attention.

Choreographers Claire Mallardi (Director of the Radcliffe Dance Program) and Tommy Neblett, with five talented artists to arrange, opt for a lot of tight motion and leggy prancing-which is fine, but doesn't always serve the words. The odes and the dance are twin hypnoses, and only one spell at a time can take hold. The collective decision to explore the possibilities of a lesbian subplot between a female Dionysus and her followers fares unexpectedly well. When the five dancers crouch close together, it reminds one of that Herb Ritts photo with all those supermodels.

Especially in the fast-moving dialogue, Williams' translation is witty--and the production benefits. Compare the literal Greek of Pentheus' sarcasm (Hos thrasus ho Bakhos, How insolent is this Bacchus!) with Williams' "Bacchic backtalk!" Again in the same scene "Deinos su deinos kapi dein' erkhei pathe (I need a macron)," "You are wonderful, wonderful" (Laurence Welk, anybody?) "And wonderful are the experiences you go to meet" becomes in Williams "You are awe-inspiring. Your outcome will inspire awe." The translation and the production share the great felicity of exaltation in the words themselves.

A few things don't quite pay off: The red flag planted by the speaking Maenad (presumably to signal bloody devastation) might have never been unfurled; the novitiate (Alison Howe on 10/30) sitting on a pillow, singing the Oro supplex, is a bit much. But the production boasts tremendous visual appeal, thanks to a wonderfully spare set by Helen Shaw '98, spiffy costumes by Jessica Jackson '99 and--especially at the play's beginning and end--skillful and tricky lighting, designed by Alan Symonds '69.

So yes, this play is worth seeing. Maybe not for catharsis, but certainly for the best of current Harvard theater. O ite Bakhai.