If, behind the scenes, a new Abbey Theater management is working toward a bright new future for the institution, onstage its artists are holding stubbornly onto the past — to their peril. The new regime’s first mainstage production, “Homeland,” saw Paul Mercier belaboring a story of today’s Ireland with references to ancient Celtic myth. Now Conall Morrison attempts comment on the current situation in Iraq via a 25-century-old mystical tragedy. It is not inherently a bad idea to reference religious fundamentalism and a clash of cultures via Euripides’ “The Bacchae” — the play, after all, is a treatment of these themes, among others. But Morrison’s tactics are so literal as to shut down the text and the contemporary metaphor’s abilities to speak to and through each other.
In Euripides’ text, the reign of Theban leader Pentheus is challenged when his cousin, Dionysus, returns to the city seeking vengeance against those who deny his half-god, half-mortal lineage. Here, Morrison has Robert O’Mahoney play Pentheus as the swaggering, tyrannical leader of American forces in Iraq, complete with full dress Army uniform, American accent and a close-cropped salt-and-pepper haircut that gives him an unmistakable likeness to George W. Bush.
But it makes no textual sense to make Pentheus American, as it strips him of any legitimate claim on the city; the logical contemporary parallel for Pentheus would be an Islamic extremist ruler.
Here, however, it is Dionysus who becomes a vague, broad reference for the East: Attractive young olive-skinned thesp Christopher Simpson is costumed in dreadlocks and harem pants, speaks in a broadly Middle Eastern accent and moves sinuously around the stage.
As the chorus of Bacchants, dark-skinned women wearing veils and layers of dark fabric whirl like dervishes to a world-music soundtrack. Morrison’s concept therefore buys into every cliche of the mystical, exotic, feminized East and the thrusting, masculinist, blockheaded West. In its literalism, it offers an obvious and unnuanced critique of America’s self-appointed role as military police of the new geopolitical order when program notes — excerpts from Salman Rushdie and books about fundamentalism — indicate Morrison was attempting commentary on extremism on both sides of the current divide.
His approach is further hindered by an over-respectful treatment of Euripides’ text, which hews closely to the original, retaining scenes and choric passages in their original order. Greater liberties probably were necessary in order to enable the kind of contempo parallels Morrison was aiming for.
In particular, the characteristic indirectness of the Greek dramatic form — significant action happening offstage but reported in long monologues by messengers — clashes with the literalism of the present-day setting (though Peter Hanly in particular dispatches his messenger duties with sensitivity and conviction).
The drama really only comes into focus very late in the play, when Andrea Irvine enters as Pentheus’ mother, Agave, streaming with blood and carrying her son’s severed head; her portrayal of the character’s return to sanity is genuinely moving.
Sabine Dargent’s fine set places the action in a cluttered square in modern Baghdad, lined with scaffolding and with steps down to the seating area, creating an effective sense of proximity between audience and action.
Nick McCall’s lighting, however, is so fussy as to be a frequent distraction, with new areas and colors being illuminated constantly between scenes.
Choreographer Cindy Cummings is unable to bring a cohesive physical presence to the chorus’ very different performance abilities and styles.
This is one of several recent productions (“The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Hamlet” are others) in which Morrison has started out with an innovative take on a classic text, but has not fully investigated or achieved the conceit. One hopes the new Abbey, where Morrison has been named an associate artist, might help provide the missing elements (most crucially, time) that will allow this talented writer-director to return to what in the past has been impressive form.