Alan Cumming was obviously destined from the cradle to play Dionysus — in corkscrew curls, girly makeup, and gold lame kilt, no less. Goosing the startling effect of this androgynous spectacle, the thesp makes his entrance handcuffed, bare-assed and hanging upside down like a golden bat. Thus is a quicksilver song-and-dance man transformed into an immortal Greek god for the National Theater of Scotland’s rock-arena interpretation of Euripides’ nasty revenge tragedy, “The Bacchae,” a certain summer crowd-pleaser, but limited to a mere 13 perfs as the opener of the 2008 Lincoln Center Festival.
Casting the seditious, vulpine-featured Cumming as the hedonistic god of licentious earthly delights was an inspired choice on the part of helmer John Tiffany. Liberating in more than the obvious, sexual sense, the role gives full range to Cumming’s mercurial talents — as a classical actor, a musical theater star, an athletic performer and a Scotsman who, for once, doesn’t have to stifle his distinctive native accent. At once cunning, seductive and gleefully cruel, the performance is a genuine tour de force.
In the character’s single nod to fair play, Dionysus informs us up front that he is in disguise and quite untrustworthy, which allows him to charm everyone onstage and out front, while leading them straight to hell. On the simplest story level — and David Greig’s modern, but surprisingly temperate adaptation of Euripides’ poetry is nothing if not lucid — the petulant young god has every reason to be annoyed with his staid royal relatives, the rulers of Thebes.
These self-righteous establishment figures have insulted his human mother, refused to recognize his own Olympian stature, and denied the validity of his new religion, a dangerous combination of sensual freedom and unbridled violence. To teach these Theban stiffs a lesson, Dionysus has bewitched their women, enthralling them with intoxicating music and engaging them in wild bacchanalian rituals.
Now he’s about to go after the men.
“Everyone around the world is dancing to our tune now,” he smugly informs his cousin Pentheus (the sturdy Cal MacAninch), the King of Thebes. Curious about the goings-on in the deep woods, Pentheus disguises himself as a woman in order to spy on the orgies. Even Cadmus (Ewan Hooper), the family patriarch, and Tiresias (John Bett), the aged seer, adorn their rigid top hats with flowers (a nice touch from designer Miriam Buether) and are drawn to the dance.
But on a deeper level, the god of all things sensual, self-indulgent and extreme represents a powerful religious force that, if allowed to rage unchecked, could destabilize the nation and bring down an ancient civilization. When Cumming drops his guise of the fun-loving clown and reveals the depth and savagery of Dionysus’ plans to revenge himself, there is a decided drop in temperature — corresponding to a burst of technical fireworks from lighting designer Colin Grenfell.
Even those naughty Bacchae — nine soulful black backup singers in red gowns, in Tiffany’s sly interpretation of the classic Greek chorus — seem a bit daunted by the horrific nuts and bolts of Dionysus’ elaborate revenge scenario. But in truth, it’s hard to gauge the true feelings of this eye-catching girl group, whose members infuse Tim Sutton’s choral songs with a lot of spirit, while retaining their innocence of formal acting skills.
That leaves the amazing Paola Dionisotti to do all the heavy emotional lifting when she flings herself onto the stage as Agave, the mother of Pentheus and the unwitting agent of his grisly death. For all the pyrotechnics of Tiffany’s sound-and-light show, it’s the pure language of Euripides’ poetry and the raw pain of Dionisotti’s electrifying performance that reveal the true power of this ancient tragedy — and its curiously modern message.