A flute and violin moan somberly as bodies slowly stir in the hull of a beached rowboat; strained light drizzles upon the naked flesh of women and their leader, Dionysus. So begins director Frédérique Michel’s 75-minute City Garage production of Charles L. Mee’s The Bacchae, an elegant interpretation that shimmers with languid beauty but whose telling sometimes sinks under the playwright’s dense blocks of speech. Mee’s 1993 reinterpretation of the Greek tragedy includes quotes, he says in the play’s introduction, from “Euripides, Georges Bataille . . . ‘insane’ texts from the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, Joan Nestle’s Femme-Butch texts . . .” So the evening can be lyrically haunting or sound like open-mike night at A Different Light.
The story is not really about the Bacchae, the wild women inflamed by retsina and lust. Nor is it about their idol, Dionysus (Justin Davanzo), god of wine and fertility, the happy-hour god who was the last of the Greek deities to take up residence on Mount Olympus. Instead, it concerns the king of Thebes, Pentheus (Troy Dunn), Dionysus’ implacable foe and a mortal who embodies our own personal conflicts between eros and civilization. Here, Pentheus appears to be a staunch advocate of heterosexual rationalism and black suits. He and his bodyguard-like aids (David E. Frank and Joel Nuñez) are scandalized to find his grandfather Kadmos (Bo Roberts) and the blind old seer Tiresias (Ed Baccari) lounging on the beach attired in the red colors associated with Dionysus’ followers.
The king prefers order and the grace of symmetry to the carnal chaos represented by Dionysus. Or does he? During some puritanical declarations, Pentheus admits to many forbidden desires and appears torn between an allegiance to art and beauty and the hankering for a goatier life of disheveled sensuality.
Toward play’s end, Dionysus persuades Pentheus, before he wages war on the Bacchae, to disguise himself as a woman and infiltrate the camp of these cliff-dwelling females. After being ceremonially crowned with a wig and swathed in black fabric (“because it is the color of forbidden love between men,” says Dionysus, helpfully quoting German sociologist Klaus Theweleit), the king hovers at the edge of the women’s base and gets an earful from the Bacchae.
“There are times,” says Tattooed Woman (Nita Mickley), “when you can put matchsticks or little wooden objects into your vaginal piercings, and then, after a while . . . just have anal intercourse if you want to use a dildo.”
Exactly, Pentheus must be thinking just before he is discovered and unmasked, whereupon his mother, Agave (Joan Chodorow), kills him with her bare hands — not because of his transvestism but because, under the spell of wine, the women mistook him for a wild animal.
The war between Apollonian ideals and Bacchantic debauchery runs in and out of vogue in art and literature. The 1960s were definitely Dionysus’ last heyday, a kind of Topanga Age (or was it Spahn Ranch Republic?) to which people fled from what they saw as the tyranny of logic and the sickness of ideas. Still, after watching the horror on Chodorow’s face when she realizes what she has done, one cannot imagine a worse hangover than that suffered by her and the Bacchae after the wine’s spell has worn off.
Director Michel’s two leads establish a suitably tense chemistry, with Dunn’s Pentheus being a one-man civil war of desires who’s ripe for the seductive suggestions of Davanzo’s deus sex machina. From her dolorous choreography of the Bacchae (whose other members include Juni Buchér, Irene Casarez, Katherine Dollison, Mariko Oka and Julie Weidmann) to the precision of her cast’s deliveries, Michel exercises a laudable restraint with Mee’s script. Production designer Charles A. Duncombe’s weathered-shoreline set and velvety lighting plot lend a subliminal unease to the proceedings, while Josephine Poinsot’s witty costumes swing from the modern to timelessly diaphanous.
If Michel resists Mee’s invitation to stage a kind of Greeks Gone Wild burlesque, poet Jean Racine’s version of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus presents the opposite temptation. Written in the cold chandelier light of French classicism, Racine’s alexandrines offer unforgiving lessons for the holders of “unnatural” passions. No wonder the Wooster Group took Racine’s adaptation apart with Paul Schmidt’s To You, the Birdie!, a jarring (yet ultimately silly) retelling with Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe that turned the story’s grim morality inside out. Although Sabin Epstein’s production at A Noise Within sometimes seems in touch with the story’s soap-opera potential (it has strong male and female characters spread across the age spectrum), it never escapes the clutches of Racine’s moralism — or the corset of Richard Wilbur’s morose translation.
The setting is Troezen, which until recently had been ruled by Theseus (Mark Bramhall), the hero-king of Minotaur fame who is now missing and presumed dead somewhere in the Underworld. His queen, Phaedra (Jenna Cole), has been struck by a vengeful Aphrodite with a debilitating lust for Phaedra’s stepson Hippolytus (J. Todd Adams), who has spurned the goddess’ temples. Hippolytus, in fact, spurns all women, including Phaedra, until he falls in love with the enemy princess, Aricia (Dorothea Harahan), who now stands to gain Theseus’ throne with Hippolytus’ consent.
Incest (sort of), blasphemy and a power struggle are the black powder of any telenovella. And here, as in all good soap operas, the king returns very much alive after all have shown their hands: Phaedra has revealed her passion to Hippolytus, who in turn has embraced Aricia, who has signed off on the throne deal. No sooner does Theseus reclaim that throne than Phaedra’s faithful old nurse, Oenone (June Claman), persuades the king that Hippolytus has raped the queen — setting in motion events that will sweep the stage clear of three characters.
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Director Epstein presents the story in a fast but committed 90 minutes on Michael Smith’s austere set, which resembles a drained pool; as a backdrop, there’s a screen on which varying shades of twilight are glimpsed through a stand of gilded bamboo. The time is any time, the place anywhere. Costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings provides the ensemble with a variety of period outfits ranging from Wehrmacht formal (Theseus) to contemporary hesher (Hippolytus) to pseudo-Elizabethan (Phaedra). The problem with this production is that the characters don’t inhabit the personalities of their costumes: By letting actors bend just a little to their garment’s whims, this Phaedra could have been a more interesting — a more sexual — performance without lapsing into the smug anarchy of To You, the Birdie! Like The Bacchae, there is a clash between desire and kingly authority in Phaedra, but here there is no sense of play or subversiveness in the characters or their surroundings. (Probably the most effective scene is the violent argument between Theseus and that reluctant object of Phaedra’s desire, Hippolytus.)
As it is, the ensemble members are trapped in their rigid deadpans — a condition that Frédérique Michel avoided. Along with Medea, Phaedra is one of the meatiest actress roles in the Greek canon, and Cole almost makes the most of it, though every time she seems on the verge of exploring new ground with her character, and of breaking out as some fateless persona, Wilbur’s rhyming couplets seem to bring her back to earth and her destiny. Perhaps this is why Claman’s grim portrayal of Oenone is so effective — it’s entirely in the spirit of Racine’s austere poetry.
THE BACCHAE | By CHARLES L. MEE | CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St., Santa Monica | Through October 22 | (310) 319-9939
PHAEDRA | By JEAN RACINE, translation by RICHARD WILBUR | A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | Through November 19 | (818) 240-0910