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All that said, Akalaitis did make some great decisions. The way she handles the chorus, making them the real driving force in the drama, is very effective and highlights the unique choice that Euripides made in using women. The music of Philip Glass is perfect for this play—the repetition and swirling soundscapes that he creates are ideal for heightening the tension between what’s comfortable and what we fear. And the acting of Anthony Mackie in the role of Pentheus is some of the best in the show. Pentheus is your Eliot Spitzer, your Strom Thurmond, your Larry Craig—he’s the self-righteous prick who is passing laws and screaming to the hills about moral corruption all the while debauching himself behind the scenes. Unfortunately, Akalaitis doesn’t give us time to really see and experience that critical switch when Pentheus is lured by Dionysus into admitting to his secret desires, the turn that brings about his brutal end. That’s the switch that the audience should experience as well—we should be entranced by Dionysus, tempted into entering a new realm of pleasure and ecstasy that quickly turns into something dark, because we too have been swept up into a belief system that perpetuates horrific violence in the world.
The relationship between belief and violence is at the center of this play. Dionysus is a powerful god, but the bacchants choose to follow him instead of other gods. We choose to drink, to take drugs, to put ourselves under the influence of other forces, and so we have to ask if it’s fair to blame those other forces entirely when we commit evil acts? The climax of the play comes when Agave kills her own son without realizing it. But in our day and age she’d get off without question on temporary insanity—she was in a cult, she was drunk, or high, or both, and her god told her to do it. That’s right, he told her to kill her own son, to literally rip him apart—he was standing behind her, egging her on, or so we’re told—we didn’t see what happened ourselves, the Messenger told us. And there’s the rub. We have to figure this one out for ourselves. Euripides, in Nicholas Rudall’s clear and simple translation, doesn’t
give us any easy ways out.
Because of the content, because it is so intimately connected to the world we live in right now, this is a show worth seeing. If you can get tickets, and you can get past some of the hokier elements in the production, you won’t have spent the evening poorly.
As a sidenote, even though the virtual line seems like a more convenient way to get tickets to the show, rather than standing in line for hours, from what I hear, you’re very unlikely to actually get tickets by that lottery system. You’ll fare much better the old fashioned way.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)