Camp Dionysus Plays Euripides for Laughs

Predictably, the production plays this famous scene for broad laughs. Lost in translation is any sense of nuance, mystery, temptation or moral ambiguity. Instead, a campy fashion parade takes place with the delighted Dionysus acting as fussy dresser, an André Leon Talley to the increasingly interested Pentheus. It’s The Bacchae meets La Cage Aux Folles.

“No, a bit clashy!” Dionysus exclaims, rejecting one of the dresses. “Something’s missing, yes? A wee accessory, maybe …”

Pentheus exits—the better to return with a grand entrance. “Come out!” Dionysus calls after him. “You know you want to!” (Geddit?) The demure Pentheus then comes out in a bright green party frock (with accessories). “How do I look?” he asks.

Euripides—where are you now? (Having a wee breakdown.)

 

THE SHOWBIZZY CONCEPT of Mr. Tiffany’s production stops well short, in fact, of the truly modern. With Dionysus’ nine black backup singers functioning as a chic gospel/R&B Chorus, the production’s era is nostalgic Motown. Gospel versions of Greek classics aren’t new, though I suspect they may be new to Mr. Tiffany. (Gospel at Colonus became the hit gospel version of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus at Colonus 20 years ago.) The Supremes are among this Bacchae’s motifs (one enjoyable “homage” is a blatant steal from Dreamgirls).

The retro atmosphere turns the show into an accidental period piece. The Bacchae was staged frequently in America during the turbulent 1960s, when the wars between the radical counterculture of Dionysus and the repressive, uncomprehending status quo of Pentheus made urgent contemporary sense. But can it work today, when no significant youth movement or counterculture exists? Can a modern version of Euripides smash through the safe, smug, pervasive middle ground and speak truth to us?

Mr. Tiffany and Co. haven’t found the answer. They’ve cr
eated a number of memorable moments—the tulips that descend from the heavens smack on a grave; the blind oracle and king’s uncle tap-dancing like pickled, vaudevillian geriatrics; the firewall coup de théâtre that burns down Pentheus’ palace and threatens to scorch the astonished audience; the brief blinding light, a vision of the divine.

But tricks and showbiz leave the tragic grandeur of the play behind. The Bacchae’s savage conclusion arrives like an unwelcome intruder with the butchered, dismembered remains of Pentheus. The fine performances of Ewan Hooper’s grieving grandfather soaked in his beloved grandson’s blood, together with Paola Dionisotti as Pentheus’ deranged mother and unwitting, exultant accomplice in his murder, only emphasize the campy superficiality of all that’s gone before.

This is the third production I’ve seen of late, incidentally, that concludes with a severed head. Two Macbeths and now The Bacchae. The heads don’t look real to me. They all look like Patrick Stewart. Dripping with fake blood, absurdly shiny and plastic, they could be on sale at Madame Tussauds. Severed heads should be bagged and not seen. It’s time to bag them onstage.

jheilpern@observer.com

Camp Dionysus Plays Euripides for Laughs