KPBS AIRDATE: September 1, 1993
New York had “Dionysus in ’69.” Now San Diego has “The Bacchae” in ’93. Both are definitely reflections of their times.
In the sixties, reverence for the Greek god of wine and fertility made all the sense in the world. It was, after all, the Age of Aquarius, and as the audience moved through the small downtown theater space to follow the course of the orgasmic action, they were accosted by the actors, sometimes literally seduced. It was a time of liberation and free love. In the well-known duality of the nature of Dionysus, or Bacchus, it was the joyful side that held sway.
Not these days. The world premiere presentation of a new translation of “The Bacchae,” a tragedy by Euripides, focuses mostly on the savagery of the god and his followers. But this interpretation, by Undergraund! Inc., a UCSD offshoot, goes far beyond that.
Also in a downtown space, the audience once again moves through a warehouse, following the action, which actually begins on the street, when Dionysus, in full drag (feather boa and all), emerges from a car that pulls up to the entrance. From there, the peripatetic observers are led to four different areas — first sitting on stone steps, then standing in a narrow passageway, standing in a larger room, ending up (finally!) on real chairs, in a high-ceilinged dungeon of sorts.
Fear not. You will not be accosted by the earnest and talented cast. And a good thing, too. Because the ‘ecstasy’ brought on by this nineties Dionysus may be sexual, even sensual, but it’s by no means joyful. It’s brutal and destructive. As in our newspapers and mega-hit movies, sex is welded to violence.
In Euripides’ original tale, the frenzied female followers of Dionysus ultimately tear the king of Thebes limb from limb. It’s not a pretty picture. But I could think of a thousand ways to whip women into a frenzy; the conception in this production is not one of them. There is no rapture and felicity in their world. They are a vicious group, torturing subordinates, forcing merciless, painful sexual acts on each other.
This could only be a man’s fantasy of a female society. No woman would ever dream of such a horrific scene as we are left with in this production. It’s not clear whether attribution belongs to the up-and-coming historian/playwright Charles Mee, or to the young, imaginative director, Ivan Talijancic, but it’s beyond description, and far too bloody and barbaric for the likes of me.
Until that last nightmarish vision, which refused to leave me for days, I was with this production all the way. The ensemble is strong. And I believe Talijancic is someone to watch. The 24 year-old is about to leave San Diego (taking his talented troupe with him), to study directing under Anne Bogart and Andrei Serban. That will help him hone his skills, become more focused in his direction, choreographing moves rather than allowing aimless wandering or unspecified dancing. He’s got terrific promise. But he also seems to have some of the worst of nineties male sensibilities.
There is much in this production that spotlights the underside of our era: The greedy excesses of the eighties. The repressed sexuality of right-wing leaders. The androgyny of it all. And the misogyny. Not to mention the sadism of the police, which here are more than vaguely reminiscent of L.A. cops.
The story of “The Bacchae” has always been disturbing. This new version, still a work-in-progress, is punctuated by brilliant imagery, clarity and sarcasm. But this production, highly creatively conceived, requires a strong back and a stronger stomach.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.