Dionysian upset

Each year, final-year acting students in University College’s drama program have the opportunity to work with an acclaimed professional director, their studies culminating in an annual production helmed by that director. This year, recent Siminovitch Prize winner Daniel Brooks is directing an adaptation of Euripides’ Bacchae at the Helen Gardiner Playhouse, running until February 9. Brooks, a fixture on the local theatre scene, is known for his highly singular vision, which he applies to this stark, stylized version of the classic Greek tragedy.

Bacchae is the tale of Dionysus, the god of fertility, wine and theatre, and his return to Thebes, where he is opposed by his cousin, King Pentheus. When Dionysus drives the women of Thebes out of the town and into frenzies of worship, Pentheus tries to spy on them and meets a sorry end.

Astrid Janson’s sparse, striking set, comprised of a dirt-filled platform in front of a red cloth backdrop, anchors the production, complementing the simple, flowing robes worn by the actors and accentuating the action literally rooted in the soil. Also effective is French composer Jean-Jacques Lemetre’s minimalist score: six musicians seated directly in front of the platform use only their voices and the odd instrument and percussion to underscore and emphasize the rise and fall of action. Technically, this is a wonderful performance.

Unfortunately, the staging and acting fail to live up to the design and technical elements of the production. The staging is uniform and cohesive throughout, but the only really bold and effective moments come in fits and spurts.

Robbing the play of emotional immediacy, characters speak their lines to the audience rather than to each other. When old men Tiresias (Evert Houston Blouin) and Cadmus (Tyler Kruspe) hold painted masks in hand and bemoan their age and the fate of their city, the audience feels very little connection with—or between—the two. Such is also the case when Dionysus (Claudio J. Chiodo) chides Pentheus (Marc Tellez), “You pretend to listen, but you don’t pay attention.” One is inclined to agree.

Tellez, as the rigid, all-bluster Pentheus, is much better. Although we still do not get a good enough sense of his outrage, Tellez imbues his speeches with some semblance of expression. Similarly, of the three mad women of the chorus, Zoe Huang’s layered, passionate speech, with her addition of Taiwanese translation, was an interesting high point of the play.

Another problematic area includes a homoerotic subtext between Dionysus and Pentheus that is robbed of any intrigue by an unnecessarily blatant bit of choreography. However, a brief nude scene where Pentheus is stripped of his clothing and robed in the dress of a chorus member (Rebecca Silver Slayter) makes its point in a fairly effective fashion.

By the time Pentheus’ mother, Agave (Sandra Rodrigues), arrives on the scene with arms bloodied to the elbow and delivers what should be a heartbreaking speech in the same flat, cool delivery, one’s patience is tested to the limit. Certainly Greek tragedy doesn’t need any extra melodrama piled on to be effective, but Brooks’ staging manages to somehow dilute what should be the most stirring of spectacles.

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