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Wild Women 

The Bacchae

Wednesday, Dec 15 1999
Not even Tarantino can match the Greeks for brutal gore. Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, and the rest have an almost lurid taste for showing mangled bodies, broken skulls, lanced-out eyes, and bloody spears. The difference is that Greek savagery is never glib: It always drags behind it a train of awful grief. Somehow, the sane and simple rituals of the old plays can be hard to grasp, maybe because more than 2,000 years of monotheism stand in the way; but the Shotgun Players in Berkeley are making a decent attempt to correct that with The Bacchae.

Euripides starts his play with the argument that Dionysus is a powerful god -- not some frivolous party boy, but in fact a son of Zeus. When his aunts spread a nasty rumor that Dionysus is not a son of Zeus, he gets upset, and, to teach them a lesson, drives the women crazy. The aunts rave with the wild women or Bacchae (devotees of Dionysus) in the hills outside Thebes. Pentheus, king of Thebes, is the son of one of the offending aunts, and has a bad attitude about Bacchic revels in general. The play relates what happens to him when he tries to arrest Dionysus and catch a glimpse of his raving mom.

Ideally, a presentation of this work should be sexed-up and sultry at the beginning and bloody and horrible at the end. There should also be some link between the writhing, sexy Bacchae and the obscenity of their violence. Director Patrick Dooley wants this effect, works for it, but his cast achieves it only patchily. Everyone tries too hard. The Bacchae, who also play the chorus, creep onstage like hippies crossed with werewolves, smeared with blood or mud, chanting and moving around with a not-quite-natural eeriness. Their sometimes raunchy movements have been nicely choreographed by Andrea Weber, which helps make their long speeches interesting, and some of the belly-dance-inspired sections work unusually well. But too often the Bacchae come off as hippie chicks trying to be all sexy and mystical. Only the chorus leader, Bella Warda, acts with real authority.

Dionysus is also halfway between sultry and stiff. He's played by Adam Bock, who wrote Shotgun's last production (Swimming in the Shallows), and appropriately enough wears almost nothing but a rubbery black skirt. He dances to atmospheric world-beat music and twirls around with his thyrsus, or ivied spear. He looks like Dionysus -- or the Roman version, at least -- and his moments of rage are strong, but his performance isn't unbridled or primal enough to be the essence of wine-drunk ecstasy.

Two actors at the core of the play make it work: Andy Alabran as Pentheus, and Trish Mulholland as his mother, Agave. Mulholland so far has played acid-tongued and normally prudish side-roles in Shotgun shows -- she's good with British accents -- so it's surprising to see her here as the savage, blood-smeared, grieving heroine. But she pulls off the role with a nice light touch. She may be a shade conservative, but that's not bad, because the role must not be overacted. The phrase "shock of recognition" takes on a whole new dimension with poor, wild-eyed Agave.

Alabran does a good job with Pentheus, although he has to do it from the confines of a ridiculous black vinyl bodysuit with studded armbands. He looks like the Lou Reed of Rock 'n' Roll Animal, which is funny for the first five seconds. Sure, Pentheus is a disciplinarian who wants to squelch Bacchic revels; so, yes, it's a funny idea to make him a sort of closeted homosexual Nazi. But it doesn't work. If Pentheus is so obviously gay, why would he "pay a fortune in gold" to peek at the Bacchae in the woods? The character needs a subtler treatment. (A twitchy imitation of Dan White, for example, would have been perfect.) But Alabran is, nonetheless, funny onstage as an easily outraged, cartoon fascist -- he brings, paradoxically, energy and life to the production.

John Polak is also noticeably strong as the Guard, Herdsman, and Messenger. His speeches need to be lively, and they are. In fact, most of the very long speeches in the show have been dressed up, by good acting and directing, to be visually engaging. The Messenger is vivid and clear; the Bacchae dance as they chant; and Teiresias, the old windbag, with Bacchic ivy in his hair, makes his long argument about respecting Dionysus from behind a pair of sunglasses. He wanders back and forth and always faces the wrong person while he addresses Pentheus, because, of course, he's blind. Barry Horwitz plays Teiresias wittily enough that though the speech is boring, it's fun to watch.

The Bacchae is the Shotgun Players' first effort at Greek tragedy. Hopefully it won't be the company's last. The group throws itself into Euripides with its usual happy abandon, nailing some parts and missing others, and what the players miss might be a function of never having done Greek stuff before. The main flaw of the production is the actors' visible effort to be primal, pagan, and obscene, when those qualities, by their very natures, can't be self-conscious or forced. A couple of more Greek tragedies and they should have it down.


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