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The Birth of Tragedy

Annex Theater’s new play goes to the origins of Greek drama

Photo: Molly Marguiles, License: N/A

Molly Marguiles

Annex Theater’s chorus of maenads


Two Suns over Thebes

Translated and adapted from Euripides’ Bacchae by Alex Hacker

Through Nov. 10 at Annex Theater

Greek tragedy, as far as we can tell, originated out of the dithyramb, a choral song to the god of tragedy and wine, Dionysus. And so Euripides’ Bacchae is in one sense the most tragic of all of our tragedies. This is strange because Euripides is also the least tragic of the tragic poets whose work remains extant (Sophocles and Aeschylus being the other two). In the ancient world, he was ridiculed by Aristophanes and posthumously panned by Aristotle. Even Nietzsche—whose own first book, the Birth of Tragedy, championed Dionysus—accused Euripides of diluting tragedy.

All of which also means that Euripides is the most modern of the Greek playwrights. But the Bacchae, at least on the surface, is not a very Euripidean play. His final play, produced posthumously, the Bacchae has been read by some as something akin to a deathbed conversion. It is possessed of a purity and an austerity that Euripides usually lacks. There is no meta-commentary on tragedy, no avant-garde formality, or pop posturing: He rocks it old school, which means the play revolves around the chorus.

The chorus is also the most difficult part of a classical tragedy for the contemporary director to pull off—partly because we know so little about how the dances worked. But here’s what we do know about how it all happened. A choregos, a rich dude, would supply the money to put on the Great Dionysia. The playwrights who were selected for the competition were given a chorus, who slept and dined together for a long period of time as they rehearsed, like a military unit. The playwright was also a composer—tragedies were all musicals—and a choreographer. The very word chorus derives from the word for “dance floor.”

In so many of the tragedies of the classical period, the chorus seems so nonessential that it can be left out altogether—as in Glass Mind Theater’s recent production of the Antigone. But that’s impossible for the Bacchae, where the success of any production will lie with the director’s interpretation of the chorus. And by this standard, Annex Theater’s production, at the Chicken Box through Nov. 10, is an unmediated success, possessing a splendid display of the chorus in its essential Dionysian aspect.

In the play, a stranger from the East (who is actually the god) brings the cult of Dionysus to Thebes, where Dionysus himself was conceived when Zeus slept with Semele. Zeus promised the pregnant Semele anything she asked, and she demanded to see his true form, which incinerated her. Dionysus was sewn up in the thigh of the god (or the sky) and incubated until he was born a second time. His cult spread widely in the East but was still ignored in Thebes, where his cousin Pentheus was by now the ruler.

The play opens with Dionysus himself (Adam Endres) announcing that he has taken the human form of the stranger who comes into town with a travelling band of maenads, or Bacchae, ecstatic revelers who lose their narrow, personal individuality in the comic forces of wine and dance. The lights come up to a pile of sleeping women who begin, then, to writhe and undulate, coming to life as they begin to dance, pounding hands, like the thyrsus, the Bacchic stick, on the ground. Soon, they are dancing—the music, provided by Dan Deacon, Matmos, and Gerrit Welmers, is appropriately ecstatic. The Bacchae—consisting of avant-garde stalwart Lexie Mountain, Emily Hall, Kate Hardwicke, Sarah Jacklin, Martin Kasey, and the spectacularly frenzied Madison Coan—take the hands of audience members and pull them onto the dance floor. On opening night, the dance-party effect was heightened by the red-and-blue flashing lights of a police car outside on Charles Street. The dance doesn’t feel like bullshit, as one would expect it to. There is something honest and powerful about it and, given the theme of the play, I’d recommend you get out on the floor when the maenads bid you to. It actually felt ecstatic. (They also pass around wine and some kind of nuts in a sort of communion: It recalls that other dying and resurrecting god-man associated with wine who claimed to be a son of God and was mocked.)

Out of this dance arises the tragedy of Pentheus, played by Rjyan Kidwell, who brings a perfect imperiousness to the role. His mother, Agave (Molly Margulies), and many of the other women of Thebes have left their homes and are roaming the hills with maenads. Even Cadmus (Jonathan Jacobs), his grandfather and the founder of the city, has taken up the paraphernalia of Dionysian dance and is hitting the hills with the old prophet Tiresias (Ishai Barnoy).

Pentheus will squash or repress all of the lewd desires and wanton drunkenness of the Dionysian cult, claiming that Dionysus is not a god at all but rather a danger to the state. So he sends his men out to capture the Thracian stranger who is seducing the women with the songs of the false god. They return with Dionysus tied up. Endres plays him as a sort of petulant Jim Morrison, alternately pouting and gloating. Whereas Kidwell is immediately convincing as Pentheus, one questions Endres at first. After all, it is far easier to play a tyrant than a god.

For much of the play, Endres is just a step shy of convincing. First of all, to be shallow about it, he is not quite hot or charismatic enough to be Dionysus, who really should give straight men wood and make women swoon. But there is also an issue with the direction, split between Alex Hacker, who translated and adapted the play, and Mason Ross. The tone of Dionysus is peculiar and subject to sudden shifts that would be a nightmare to depict. For the most part, they pull it off and Endres transforms himself into a believable god. Again, the chorus helps bolster him in his role.

By mid-play, when Dionysus convinces Pentheus that he needs to dress as a woman and spy on the Bacchae to see the debauchery they are up to, it is Kidwell who is slightly less than convincing. Hacker, whose translation is superb (and includes a few funny inside Classics/nerd jokes), took the title Two Suns Over Thebes from this scene, which he rightly interprets as the play’s center. And yet, it feels like the cast rushed through it on opening night. What should be a drawn-out seduction scene becomes a simple spell cast by the god. Pentheus was too rigid and adamant at the beginning to become so submissive and insatiably curious about the happenings in the hills without a bit of transition—primarily because that transition is the drama of the play. To watch Pentheus change from a repressive and repressed tyrant into one who desires to escape himself and dress like a woman is what makes this play so powerful. Each of these desires and thoughts should be implied by the verbal dance Dionysus leads him through. But something in the interaction between the two men was slightly off. (It is interesting to imagine the roles reversed. Reading a recent piece by Kidwell on experiments with salvia in Arthur magazine, it was difficult not to imagine how he, who performs music under the name Cex, would have played Dionysus.) It was not wrong so much as it failed to hit the depth charge that the scene deserves. It was, however, opening night, and one suspects such a scene, like a song, takes time to develop; both performers show such skill in the rest of the play that I trust that by the end of the run, like Nietzsche, they will be dynamite.

For over 20 years I’ve read Aristotle on how tragedy was intended to produce fear and pity so that the audience may undergo catharsis, or purification of those feelings, but I never really had any idea what he was talking about. In the final scenes of the Annex production, where Pentheus’ mother Agave—played with heartbreaking oblivion and passion by Margulies—realizes what she has done to her son, I held my breath at the same moment I held back my tears, and I came to a better understanding of tragedy and felt something that may be called catharsis.

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