Dionysus was born out of an affair between his mortal mother, Theban princess Semele, and the god Zeus, who saves him after Hera conspires to kill Semele. Years later, Pentheus, the new king of Thebes and nephew to Dionysus, leads the city in denying Dionysus’s divine origins, calling the story of his birth fake news. It is Pentheus who stops the people from honoring Dionysus in their prayers and halts their celebrations, believing that Thebes under his command is more civilized than all the others. He orders his men to round up all of the practitioners of these rites, so that his truth might prevail.
Dionysus takes his revenge by driving the women of the city into the mountains, where they dance, feast, and cavort in frenzied worship. After capturing Dionysus, who has disguised himself as a mortal stranger and allowed himself to be caught, Pentheus attempts to chain, torture, and kill him, but without success. Instead, Dionysus tricks Pentheus into exhausting himself chaining a bull, burning down his house, and stabbing at shadows in futile attempts to prove his authority. Eventually, Dionysus uses Pentheus’s lustful desire to spy on those wild women in the hills to further trick him into shedding his royal attire and don a feminine disguise. Once among the women, his own mother discovers a man in disguise and, believing him to be a lecherous monster, kills him, bringing about the utter ruin of the once proud and royal family.
The trappings of Greek dramas are rarely subtle and this play is no different. The arrogant king is so convinced of his own intelligence and sophistication that he is blinded to the truth even as it stands before him and openly mocks his ignorance. This is driven home even further as his mother pridefully celebrates her prowess in killing the beast before the horror of her act is revealed. If there is one trait the Greeks despised above all others, it is hubris.
This production of The Bacchae at The Guthrie comes at a strikingly opportune moment; a time when persistent attacks upon science and reason have undermined institutions when we need them most. There are a number of bold choices that make this play stand out. Dionysus–played as a zany, madcap cross between Johnny Depp and Kieth Richards by the excellent Ellen Lauren–manages to lend both humor and gravitas to her portrayal of this powerful deity. Ultimately, however, it is Akiko Aizawa’s performance as Pentheus’s mother Agave, which stands out the most, delivering her lines entirely in Japanese. Without the aid of supertitles, Aizawa pushes the emotive envelope, bordering on anime stereotypes, in order to convey the emotional devastation wrought upon her family.
In some ways, the tidy catharsis at the end of The Bacchae contrasts with the persistent messiness of our times. We are reminded all too constantly that power, greed, and arrogance feed on each other and when left unchecked, we all pay the price.
Photo by Dan Norman