The Bacchae

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The Bacchae photo
Kristina Sherk/WSC Avant bard
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Editorial Review

Dawning of the age of Dionysus
By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, May 17, 2012

The musical “Hair” turns out to be a good way to think about the largely wonderful staging of “The Bacchae,” now at WSC Avant Bard’s intimate Artisphere home in Arlington. Shaggy actors scamper and sway while a live band plays catchy tunes. The dancing is full of abandon and sensuality, celebrating heaven-sent bliss. It’s practically a tribal love-rock musical.

That suits Euripides’s tragedy for most of Steven Scott Mazzola’s entertaining show. The drama, after all, is about Dionysus and the unbridled revels he commands to prove his divinity, so Mazzola fashions intense musical interludes for the chorus (which is certainly not the pack of chanting drones it can be in bad Greek productions).

Mariano Vales’s propulsive original music features two acoustic guitars, two fiddles, and percussion that the actors sometimes pound out together on Jessica Moretti’s simple strip stage, which positions the audience on opposite sides of the performers. Aysha Upchurch’s choreography is ritualistic and ecstatic; like Vales’s songs, it’s on the lively edge of what Mazzola’s actors -- well drilled and fully committed, but not a musical-theater bunch -- can handle.

So where many Greek stagings drag, this one sails; you feel everyone’s on the brink. The actors speak with the same passion, keyed by Manolo Santalla’s lovely turn as Teiresias, the old blind visionary who squares off against the play’s anti-Dionysian tyrant, Pentheus (Elliott Kashner, with his fascist black pants tucked into his fascist black boots). Santalla is a rapturous Teiresias, and his ease with long speeches is matched by actor after actor.

Jeremy Pace’s Dionysus at first seems too fey to drive the vain god’s angry plot, which, if you don’t know “The Bacchae,” is pretty awful. But his soft-spoken, pansexual hippie routine accumulates power, and it’s neatly subversive the way Pace aims Dionysus’s replies not to his priggish interrogator, Pentheus, but to his adoring chorus. With Pace’s laid-back, miracle-making Dionysus sporting tight ripped jeans and a tank top, the show’s “Hair” aura turns slightly “Godspell”-ish.

Yet Mazzola manages all this within the stately confines of what you think of as Greek tragedy. Dread and apprehension are in the air, thanks not only to the earthy, half-possessed chorus but to rock-solid acting in pivotal messenger roles by Frank Britton and Jim Jorgensen, vividly detailing mighty offstage events.

The show hits a speed bump before the end; harmonies and choreography grow too complex for the cast to master, and the catharsis is shallow after such a splendid buildup. Even with an intriguing puppetry surprise, the dawdling denouement keeps you from floating out of Artisphere.