Baltimore Center Stage is closing out its 2021/22 season with a bang, a beheading, and Bacchanalian excess. A modern dress musical production of Euripedes’ ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae, Bakkhai is bold, brash, and brilliant, but decidedly will not be everyone’s cup of tea — or more fittingly, glass of wine. It’s Hadestown meets Titus Andronicus, a concert full of spirited songs and a horrific, brutal ending.
The tragedy is plotted like a night of heavy drinking — lots of dancing, singing, and fun early on, moving into a confused frenzy, debauchery, and a series of bad decisions, and then the slow dawning of the previous night’s excesses through fuzzy memories and a helluva hangover.
The daemon Dionysos (half-god, half-mortal) demands full piety from the citizens of Thebes, and introduces his rituals: drinking wine, wearing ivy headdresses, and occasionally running off to the woods to suckle fawns and dismember cows.
Neither his three aunts nor his uptight cousin Pentheus recognizes Dionysos as the son of Zeus, calling his late mother Semele a liar. And that’s where the tragedy begins. Seeking vengeance against his own family for their hubris and impiety, Dionysos inflicts upon the sisters a wine-fueled madness that leads to the utter ruin of the entire royal family of Thebes. In the stunning conclusion (no spoilers), a terrifying-then-sympathetic Shauna Miles as Agave and a resigned Alexander Sovronsky as the ruined King Kadmos understand the power of the gods, their pettiness and cruelty. There will be blood, Dionysos warns, but first will come the wine.
The play pits the two cousins as oppositional forces.
Dionysos is a charismatic, seductive party boy, played with a knowing wink by Kambi Gathesha, outfitted in a Coachella-esque getup: kilt, boots, colorful top, and long locks. He speaks frequently to the audience, and his euphonious voice is amplified by a microphone he carries (replacing Dionysos’ thyrsus). His religious rites move from the hedonistic to cultish and nightmarish as the play progresses.
Pentheus — a nuanced Christopher Sears — is a prep school bully, but he is orderly and sound, even if hypocritical and unforgiving. (It’s hard not to see shades of a young Brett Kavanaugh.) His misogyny is palpable, and his own repressed same-sex desires emerge when he is goaded by Dionysos to don a dress and wig, fully coming into his own and experiencing joy if only for a few moments before his horrific end.
This is a rock show as much as it is an ancient Greek play. And that’s where this drama best embraces its ancient roots — through the use of song and dance. As adapted by Anne Carson, the language is accessible and beautiful, with lyrical lines punctuated by occasional terse prose.
Diana Oh, who has created the music for this production and sings in the “voice of the Bakkhai,” becomes a divine channel for musical expression. The long exposition of Greek plays as usually told by a member of the Chorus for 1,000+ lines flirts with different genres of music — indie, folk, calypso, autotuned pop, metal, and more — as Oh wails, purrs, growls, and uses their voice to express the thoughts and desires of Dionysos’ most fervent worshippers, accompanied by the multi-instrumentalists Maloney and Sovronsky.
Dancer and choreographer Willia Noel Montague embodies Semele, the Bull, the frenzied Bacchai, and more of the characters through graceful, powerful, and feverish dancing, her long hair whipping into the pools of wine, her sequined dress changing colors as her mood changes, her limbs collapsing onto the scaffolding.
Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set is enveloping and lush: a series of scaffolds with a 1970s recording studio — wood-paneled walls, Turkish rugs, greenery in macrame holders — stage right. There are ferns, bright throw pillows, and animal skins throughout the first rows of the audience and across the stage, pulling audience members into this wild, musical landscape. Anya Klepikov’s costumes would all fit in at music festivals, and the lighting (Amith Chandrashaker, Emma Deane) and sound design (Brendan Aanes) teams complete the rock arena atmosphere.
Does this all sound like too much? It may be for some, and especially with the bloody conclusion complete with strobe lights and booming sounds. But for a unique, immersive Bacchanalian experience, this production cannot be beat.
In her welcome note, Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra states that the production looks back to a cabaret production that she mounted 15 years ago with director Mike Donahue (who returned to direct this production) and producer Roberta Pereira while they were all grad students at Yale Drama School.
That this would be her choice to close out her first season (2019–20) demonstrates her audacity in taking big risks in artistic programming. Delayed by two years due to the pandemic, the production has now taken on a new significance during the intervening years.
Watching a man whip up his devoted followers, calling for extreme violence, and an attack on order and political institutions just so he can assert his dominance… feels a bit on the nose to watch in the same week that the first of the January 6 committee hearings aired on primetime television.
This is a tragedy without heroes, but it is a heroic production — daring, spirited, and utterly fearless.
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes with no intermission.
Bakkhai plays through June 19, 2022, at Baltimore Center Stage – 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202. At-home streaming is also available June 15–19, 2022. Underwritten by generous supporters, tickets are free and open to the public. Book here, using code BAKKHAIFREE, or call the box office at (410) 332-0033.
COVID Safety: Masks must be worn at Baltimore Center Stage and may only be removed in designated eating and drinking areas. Proof of an up-to-date vaccination (if eligible, booster is required), or a negative COVID PCR test within 72 hours of showtime, and a photo ID are required before each visit. For more information, see BSC’s Audience COVID-19 Information and Resource Page.
Sensory Warning: This production contains strobes, loud boom sound effects, and the use of liquids onstage. Content transparency: This production contains strong language, descriptions of violence, and blood.