By: Paulanne Simmons
July 22, 2019: The Bacchae, which Euripides wrote during his final years in Macedonia at the court of Archelaus I, is considered one of his greatest and most innovative tragedies. Not only is the chorus integrated into the plot but all the characters, including the god, Dionysus, are exceedingly human. Their frenzied lust, egocentric behavior and transgressive desires are qualities we can certainly understand thousands of years later.
The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s free production of The Bacchae in Marcus Garvey Park makes the play even more accessible by setting it in modern times. Dionysus (Jason C. Brown), who returns to the city where he was born to prove that despite his aunts’ slander, he is indeed the son of Zeus, seems more like a rock star than an avenging god. He’s so seductive we don’t blame King Pentheus (RJ Foster) for eventually getting caught in his web.
Bryan Doerries’s new version of the play, directed by Carl Cofield, even has a rock score by Frederick Kennedy and ecstatic, sensuous dances by choreographer Tiffany Rea-Fisher, performed by an all-female chorus and dancers (in the age of #MeToo, it’s nice to see the Bacchae become the assertive, dangerous and sexy Baquettes). And the set, with its many platforms, poles and staircases is reminiscent of the discos of the 70s and 80s.
Although the play is ultimately tragic, this production has many truly funny scenes: Dionysus helping Pentheus dress up like a girl in hot pants and wig; Dionysus escorted offstage in a pedicab chariot. And the hip urban slang puts a nice spin on Greek poetry.
Unlike other Greek tragedies with their clear moral, The Bacchae has been a puzzle for scholars and audiences. It’s easy to understand why Dionysus, whose mother, Semele, was murdered by Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera, would have a chip (In the case of a god, perhaps boulder) on his shoulder. And certainly, the lack of respect he has experienced throughout his life would be difficult for a god to endure. But the revenge he seeks and obtains does seem extreme. Perhaps the last words uttered in this production explain it all: “We need other gods.”
So, if you’d like to revel in the exploits of the Greek gods, but you can’t afford the downtown price of a ticket to Hadestown, head north to Harlem, where there’s music, dance, comedy and tragedy under the stars, all for free.
The Bacchae runs through July 28 at Marcus Garvey Park, 6316, Mt Morris Park W, 646-838-3868, cthnyc.org.
Photography: Richard Termine