Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Bacchae (Shakespeare in the Park)

The Bacchae
The Public Theater

August 22, 2009

Euripides (writer)

Joanne Akalaitis (director)

A great production of The Bacchae transforms the theater from a secular stage into a temple dedicated to a primitive god whose only demand is submission. Joanne Akalaitis, a director of alienating theater and a pillar of American experimental drama, should be a good match for the complex, ferocious show. But she delivers a production that's notable mostly for its moderation. The music, by Philip Glass, is all driving drums and pensive horns. And David Neumann's choreography, sign language as much as dance, helps the audience focus on the lyrics of the chorus's long speeches.

But the show's too cool to engage us on a primal level. In the lead, Jonathan Groff makes Dionysis a seductive, slightly sinister presence but he can't handle the transition to vengeful god. The play's climax lies with Joan MacIntosh as the mother and unknowing murderer of the King of Thebes. But after an hour of chilly and remote drama, she plays her scene in hysterics. Her performance is partly the translator's fault too: who could find the emotional truth in a line like “Ah, I cannot look! And yet look I must at what these hands have done”? The Bacchae is a play of intoxicating heat; Akalaitis and company give it a chilly distance instead.


The Bacchae plays at the Delacorte Theater (Central Park at 80st Street), closing on August 30. Tickets?

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