I have high hopes when I walk into Faux Real Theatre’s production of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, The Bacchae. After all, the company’s press release promises “a raucous aesthetic,” “immersive abandon,” and “costume malfunctions galore.” How can I not be excited? I’ve always wanted to love Greek classics, but find it hard to stay interested through the long, winding speeches. As a result, I am ready to see a Greek production that grabs my attention and holds me tight.
At first, it seems like my expectations are being met. As I head towards my seat, the theater is filled with women in flowing tan dresses and ivy crowns, dancing and offering the theater-goers grapes and cups of wine. The mood is festive– probably because people are unexpectedly getting free booze. An old man, an actor “drunk” off wine, presents the crowd with an opening monologue about the background of Dionysus, the God of wine and uninhibited joy. Yet after that, the energy of the play takes a steep downturn.
Yet before we get into the technical qualities of the production, a short Greek history for context: Dionysus is born because his pregnant mother is struck by a bolt of lightning. Since this isn’t a natural birth, many claim that he is not a God at all. Pentheus, the King of Thebes, is among this group. The King is particularly concerned that Dionysus has hypnotized a horde of women, the Bacchae, into following his beck and call– and that means doing sexy, unladylike things. Worse yet… Pentheus’ mother is among them! That kind of sexiness will not stand! So, Pentheus vows to destroy Dionysus.
The Bacchae is a story about the sensual versus the logical, and polytheism versus the belief in one true God– or none at all. In other words, in terms of conflict, The Bacchae provides a hell of a lot to work with. Unfortunately, Faux Real Theater doesn’t present the material in an extremely engaging way. First of all, I don’t feel a deep emotional connection to any character in the show– there’s no clear goal that I want anyone to achieve. I don’t particularly care if Dionysus proves that he is a true God. It doesn’t matter to me if Pentheus destroys the god of wine and reigns, alone, over his kingdom. However, if the dialogue more clearly portrayed why the characters held their beliefs and desires, then I would feel more invested in the outcome of the performance.
The strongest aspect of the play is undoubtedly its namesake, the Bacchae. The group of women work perfectly as a unit, delivering impressively long chunks of text in complete synchronicity. At points, they run into the aisles, whispering their passionate love for Dionysus in an intense–albeit quiet–frenzy. Watching a group of women cling so desperately, and so crazily, onto a man makes me feel deeply unsettled. This, however, is the point. The Bacchae are manipulated like puppets, and Dionysus is the puppet master. These women are mad, and I fully believe it.
Characteristic of a Greek tragedy, The Bacchae has plenty of dramatic moments. However, they’re rendered almost silly because of the props and costuming. For example, when The Bacchae viciously rip apart an ox, the animal is represented by a cardboard cutout, and the blood is bits of silk ribbon. When a man has his head ripped off of his body– AKA the climax of the entire production– he simply changes into an all-black outfit with bits of red ribbon hanging out the front. The man sitting next to me actually laughed when the big reveal came– far from the gasps of horror that I’m sure the director was hoping to elicit.
The Faux Real Theatre’s version of The Bacchae is advertised as an immersive theater experience. Yet, the singular time that the actors interact with the audience is when the Bacchae enter the aisles, wailing as they lose their minds. The show is also promoted as a sensual, erotic experience– yet sex is only ever hinted at, with absolutely no physical contact ever being acted out. Even the promise of costume malfunctions, which I’m assuming implies nudity, were never realized. If you want to brush up on your Greek mythology, then this play will meet your expectations. Yet if you want an interactive experience, or even a slightly racy date night, then you’ll leave The Bacchae disappointed.