Review: ‘The Bacchae’

'The Bacchae'

Jonathan Groff is cute -- but a Greek god? That's pushing it.

Jonathan Groff is cute -- but a Greek god? That's pushing it. As Dionysus, the vengeful deity who whips the noblewomen of Thebes into a mad frenzy of debauchery and violence in Euripides' guts-and-gore tragedy, "The Bacchae," the miscast young thesp puts a curious slant on Joanne Akalaitis' al fresco staging for Shakespeare in the Park. Although the physical production is handsome and the choral poetry soars on the music of Philip Glass, the central concept of Euripides' terrifying god as a pretty-boy rock star diminishes the play to no good purpose, earthly or unearthly.

Since helmer Akalaitis obviously intended the amoral god of licentiousness to be portrayed as a petulant youth with curly locks and torn jeans, it might be argued that Groff (“Spring Awakening,” “Hair”) is only doing his job. But even in this context, he doesn’t muster the ferocious anger Dionysus turns on the leaders of Thebes for rejecting his claims to divinity and banning his dangerous new religion. Nor is he particularly believable as an Olympian stud capable of driving masses of women into a state of violent sexual frenzy just by breathing into his microphone.

Curiously, the contemporary image in which the young god has been cast seems inconsistent with the rest of Akalaitis’ production. John Conklin’s austere set — dominated by graduated metal bleachers that beckon the eye to climb the tragic heights — is certainly striking for the severity of its clean sculptural lines. But it seems an unlikely choice of pulpit for this modernized deity. And while Glass’ abstract music advances Euripides’ poetic tropes, its otherworldliness feels at odds with the high anxiety levels Nicholas Rudall’s new translation brings out in the chorus — led with practiced grace by Karen Kandel, but clad, for some reason known to costumer Kaye Voyce, in harem outfits in an electrifying shade of orange.

Stuffing Anthony Mackie into a buttoned-up black business suit to play Pentheus, the arrogant ruler of Thebes, might have seemed like a smart illustration of the play’s conflict between the staid Theban political establishment and the ecstatic freedom of Dionysian religion. But the stiff costume inspires a stiff performance, leaving it to more polished pros to dispense with the superficial trappings and just deliver the lines.

As the cursed Agave, Joan MacIntosh singlehandedly delivers Euripides’ other significant theme in this tragedy — the terrible consequences when women are consistently thwarted from pursuing their natural skills and ambitions. MacIntosh gives a luminous portrayal of Agave expressing her pride and joy at succeeding in the masculine role of a hunter, the height of her exaltation making it all the more tragic when Agave comes to her senses and realizes she has killed her own son.

Also eloquent are Rocco Sisto, as the stoic messenger of really, really bad news, and Steven Rishard, as a simple herdsman reliving the horrors he has seen on the mountains. Lucky thesps, neither of their straight-talking characters has had to interact with a Dionysus cast from “Hair,” which gives them the freedom to be as classical as they please.

The Bacchae

Delacorte Theater; 1,800 seats; free


A Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park presentation of a play in one act by Euripides, in a translation by Nicholas Rudall. Directed by Joanne Akalaitis. Original music, Philip Glass; musical direction, Mick Rossi.


Set, John Conklin; costumes, Kate Voyce; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, Acme Sound Partners, Darron L. West; choreography, David Neumann; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson. Opened Aug. 24, 2009. Reviewed Aug. 20. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.


Dionysus - Jonathan Groff Teiresias - Andre de Shields Cadmus - George Bartenieff Pentheus - Anthony Mackie Agave - Joan MacIntosh Servant - Sullivan Corey Herdsman - Steven Rishard Messenger - Rocco Sisto Chorus Leader - Karen Kandel

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