©Richard Termine

The Bacchae

Reviewer's Rating

At the Classical Theater of Harlem’s annual summer show, they know how to impress. Taking well-worn classics and reinventing them in ways unique to the talents of the company is their specialty, and their show is always one that I look forward to. This year’s classic: The Bacchae, by the Greek tragedian playwright Euripides, which first premiered 2500 years ago in Athens.

Our protagonist is Dionysus (Jason C. Brown), the god of wine himself – not a metaphorical being, but a living, breathing character. Newly anointed by his father Zeus to the pantheon of gods on Olympus, he has come down to Earth disguised as a mortal preacher, spreading miracles and collecting disciples. But Dionysus has one stop to make before he can enjoy his divinity – a visit to his mortal relatives, the royal family of Thebes. After the death of Dionysus’s mortal mother, her family slandered her name and openly disparaged her son who dared claim to be a god. With his cousin Pentheus (RJ Foster) on the throne of Thebes, Dionysus and his Bacchae – his warrior women disciples – descend upon the city to see if he can’t set things straight.

The Bacchae is a serious undertaking. The play slides so quickly from fun and playful to – well, if you don’t know, it’s best just to see it for yourself. But be prepared – it gets dark. And yet director Carl Cofield and the cast navigate the nuance of this story with ease. The character arc of Dionysus, as well as the harsh politics of Thebes, are played so skillfully that you find it impossible to determine if there are any true villains or good guys at all. Even the most energetic, optimistic scenes have a hint of foreboding – and just after the play reaches its lowest point, you’ll find yourself chuckling out loud, and wondering if it’s wholly appropriate to do so yet.

Jason C. Brown is, in every way possible, the absolute star of the show as Dionysus. After a brief but dazzling performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present in CTH’s Christmas Carol, it was satisfying to see him bring that same scene-stealing charisma to such a larger-than-life character. His God of Wine is unapologetically sexy and in-your-face, but never straying from his mission. Brown plays Dionysus with an innate sense of righteousness, and yes, total pettiness – but he lacks any of the childishness that the god is often portrayed with, making him frighteningly dangerous. The cherry on top of this performance is the re-energized, modernized dialogue, adapted by Bryan Doerries, which smashes any cultural and historical barriers and brings Dionysus firmly into 21st-century Harlem with a flourish.

Much like last year’s arresting production of Antigone, Classical Theater of Harlem’s The Bacchae is rife with contemporary significance. Unlike last year, however, it is not the main focus of the play. The dysfunctional familial relationship between the electric Dionysus and his perfect foil, Pentheus, dominates the stage. But not-so-subtly, between the scenes of these two powerhouse men facing off, Dionysus’s Bachettes (the titular Bacchae – his loyal army of women who worship the god and follow him devotedly) explain in song why this braggadocious, eager-to-prove-himself young god is so attractive to them. Dionysus offers them freedom from the oppressive Greek society which treats women like property. Dionysus allows them to wield their own weapons, speak for themselves, and control their own futures.

In fact, the way that Dionysus gets the best of his shrewd cousin Pentheus is through Pentheus’s own twisted misogyny – his desire to control women and beat them into submission, but also to sexualize and objectify them in their freedom. RJ Foster does a brilliant job as the King of Thebes, Pentheus, wrestling between his obvious disgust and his perverted desire towards the women in their unabashed liberation. He packs a punch as the antithesis of the freedom that we see the Bachettes fighting for.

This may not be a play to be taken lightly, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be laughing the whole night. And CTH’s The Bacchae will certainly make for one of the best forms of entertainment you could want this summer.