The Bacchae: Classical Greece meets American Protestantism
Pentheus, the king of Thebes, mocks the golden hair of his prisoner, the god Dionysus. He ridicules its length, its femininity — but the Dionysus onstage has short, impish tufts that stick out in all directions, Pan-style, with nary a blonde curl to be seen.
Therein lies the problem: how much should an audience have to suspend reality in order to match what is seen with what is heard?
Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre’s production of Euripides’s The Bacchae is muscular and creative, pleasantly stark. The play follows what happens after Pentheus forbids a new deity, Dionysus, from being worshipped in Thebes – a timely concern in “we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-religion” PQ-run Quebec. But throughout, discordant moments detract from an otherwise intriguing production.
The Bacchae is typically associated with licentiousness — Dionysus and his band of hippies descend on Thebes to make Pentheus & Co. get with the program. Nudity and drugs abound as uptight, conservative Pentheus gets his comeuppance. Scapegoat’s production tones down all sexuality, and promiscuous misconduct exists solely in Pentheus’s imagination. The wild Theban women who take to the mountains are dressed as chastely as nuns; the chorus of “barbarian” women act as devout converts, and their sensuality stems from their “otherness,” not their physical excess.A focus on religion, rather than Pentheus’s misogyny, renders the production curiously yang. Pentheus (Brett Watson) is the portrait of Protestant sobriety, with his Napoleonic posture and calculated responses. Dionysus’s (Alex McCooeye) impishness and madness take on a satanic nature, tempting and insidious, though never erotic. The contrast serves to build tension, especially when Dionysus towers over Pentheus and at last seduces him — not through irresistible carnality, but with power.
There’s nothing wrong with setting a classical drama in a more contemporary period, especially when it makes the play more accessible and universalizes the story. However, the chosen period of inspiration — the 19th-century Second Great Religious Revival in Kentucky — confuses rather than clarifies the play’s meaning. The sparse set didn’t do much to create ambiance, making the characters seem as if they’d dressed up for a Civil War-themed party but decided to perform an ancient Greek drama instead. Every mention of the Greek gods (Zeus, Aphrodite) and religious practices seems surreal, since Christian ones (Jesus and the Holy Spirit) fit better with the cast’s dress and manner.
The fault is not in the script, which is excellent (and I say this as a Classicist who studied the The Bacchae — in Greek — for my PhD comprehensives). Director and co-translator (with Joseph Shragge) Andreas Apergis captures the poetry and mood of the original with fluency and potency. The play retains its humor, a quality easily lost in translation or reduced to campy schlock.
The acting also reflects Protestant reservations. Especially notable is Agave’s (France Rolland) arrival on stage, toting Pentheus’s head on the end of her thyrsus. Only here does the play break from deliberate emotional restraint. Rolland is moving as she transitions from delusional pride to awareness of her crime, her face contorted and shaking with grief and horror.
The chorus is also worthy of mention. Their pleasant voices and beautifully woven harmonies contrast with their intense, expressive faces and monstrous character.
Ultimately, even though the 19th-century period concept is surreal and at times jarring, the production offers an unusual interpretation of a classic that generally suffers from being overdone. Although Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre stumbles at times as it climbs its difficult mountain, it is refreshing to see them reject the easier, more familiar path the production usually takes, where libertine wantonness squares off against tyrannical misogyny. ■
The Bacchae runs until Oct. 20. Centaur Theatre (453 St-François-Xavier), 8 p.m., $18-25