My evening with the “Bacchae”

As promised…

I was originally going to call this post “Expectation and Disappointment”, but decided that was a bit melodramatic.

First, the good – the show itself. This Leonidas Loizides production is currently touring the US, under the auspices of the Greek government and various Hellenic cultural groups. The text is updated into modern Greek (not that I could tell :P ); they added a number of songs that I am sure carried a good bit of plot-advancing information (more about this in the “bad” section below), and the music by Demetrios Katis was quite good, mostly based on Greek folk melodies. All roles were performed by women; the program notes said this was done as a reversal of the ancient practice of having all roles played by men.

The production was very spare; the only stage decorations were a cloth-draped pile of something that represented the mountains where much of the action takes place, and a pitcher that was used a couple of times for (mimed) ritual purifications. The costuming consisted almost exclusively of simple sleeveless shifts in a sort of off-grey, and various colored cloth wraps that the actors would don and remove to denote when they were changing characters or their circumstances altered somehow. I could tell that the overall effect would have been, if not for the problems I’ll discuss in a second, quite effective. At the end, by the use of a simple lighting shift and a first-rate performance by the actress playing Agave, they did manage to overcome the production problems enough to convey at least a fraction of the emotional power of Euripides’ most powerful work; sadly, they failed at evoking the katharsis that Greek drama – and this drama above all – should provide.

Which leads to the bad; sadly, I found that overall it outweighed the good. Most of the problems fell into two categories – technical problems, and bad production decisions. (And since most of the technical problems could have been avoided, I guess most of the blame goes to the production decisions.) Two problems in particular stood out for me – had just these two been fixed, I would gladly have forgiven all else.

The first and worst problem was that it was painfully obvious they had not had even a tech rehearsal in this venue (a college auditorium). The supertitles were being projected from a laptop in the first row, and it took the person running them about five minutes (I timed it) to get the display centered on the screen and flipped round so the text was not displayed backwards.

Given that the projection was going UP, it follows that the magic beam of light crossed the front of the performance space, which means (logically, to my mind) that the proscenium area should have been been off limits, and the blocking adjusted as necessary (to be fair, the stage was quite shallow and not raked, but still…) There was a clear demarcation between the proscenium, which was white, and the main stage, which was wood-colored; if the actors had stayed behind the white, they would have been fine. This did not happen, with the result that about 25% of the dialog was lost to us because it was displayed not on the screen, but on various bits of the actors’ anatomies. This led to the additional distraction of several people using their cell phone displays to try and read the translation in the program.

The other major problem was with the English translation. Not the fact that it was obviously translated by someone whose first language was not English, although that was somewhat annoying because it led to some really awkward phrasing, but the fact that the songs I mentioned above – whose lyrics were obviously intended to advance the plot – were NOT TRANSLATED. The very first thing that happened in the show (after the strange walking-around pantomime during the overture) was that Dionysos came out on stage and sang… something. Knowing the play, I think it was probably the exposition, telling why he was coming back to Thebes and what horrible things were about to happen to Pentheus, and not a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song – but we’ll never know, because the song was NOT TRANSLATED. Not in the supertitles (which just said “SONG”), and not in the program (which did provide a translation of the dialogue). There were seven or eight songs in this show, all of them apparently providing information that we did not get, because the songs were… yep, NOT TRANSLATED.

After that, carping about the other problems seems almost pointless, but I do want to mention them in case this show is coming to where you are and you are trying to decide whether to go.

  • Overall the performances were good, but one of the leads in the chorus had a problem staying on key.
  • A lot of the movement by the apparent supers (there were several women who did little but stand in the back and represent citizens, maenads and possibly trees, until the climax, when they moved to the middle and waved their arms around weirdly) was too modern-dance-ish for my taste. Oh, and they also went “woo” during some of the songs.
  • During the dénouement, Agave spoke several of Cadmus’ lines for no good reason that I could see.
  • The supertitles fell a line or two behind the actors a few times too often; at one point the tech scrolled back and forth several times trying to find his or her place. Also, whoever created the titles made the mistake of having the character’s name – every time – on a separate slide from their dialog, which meant the poor tech had to flip even faster to keep up, particularly during quick exchanges of single sentences.
  • I have the impression that the show was designed to be all-female from the beginning, but the songs of the male characters sure sounded like they were written for a baritone; Cadmus’ range in particular was not quite up to the low notes. This also did not help the lady with the pitch problem.
  • Near the end, some of the supers came down and distributed lit candles to people at the ends of the first seven or so rows (but only on the left and center aisles). I don’t know why. This is actually not a problem in and of itself, but they jostled the supertitle projector and it took several lines to get the display back.
  • I mentioned that they managed to overcome all this and evoke a bit of atmosphere at the end; but rather than let us leave the theatre in darkness and go home to ponder what duty and honor we owe the Gods, they immediately brought up the house lights, and the guy in charge of bringing the show here hauled all the underwriting donors up on stage to get clapped at, which just killed any chance of leaving the theatre with the feeling of having experienced something meaningful. Hopefully this won’t happen in your city.
  • Did I mention that the songs were NOT TRANSLATED?

So, overall a show with a lot of potential; most of which was, sadly and stupidly, wasted. I’m still kind of glad I went, but I wouldn’t go again.

16 thoughts on “My evening with the “Bacchae”

  1. Nettle

    Sadly, I have never seen Greek drama performed well. Every single production I have been to has been disappointing. I’m hoping to eventually break this streak, but I’m sorry to hear it won’t be with this production of the Bacchae. Too bad – it’s one of my favorites.

  2. executivepagan Post author

    See, that’s the worst part – it WAS performed well, in terms of the actual acting. It’s everything else falling apart around it for no good reason that really cheesed me off. :(

  3. Feral Boy

    I had a good time in college (Indiana University) participating in a presentation of
    “Lysistrata”. Very light & funny, and I pulled off a 10-second costume change OK 2 out
    of 3 times. One interesting bit, the male lead was black, but his … um … enhancement
    was not. And we in the army marched on to Tom Lehrer’s “Be Prepared” !

    Slapstick — it’s timeless!

    — Feral Boy

  4. Feral Boy

    Ναι, αναφέρατε ότι τα τραγούδια δεν ήταν μεταφρασμένα.

  5. executivepagan Post author

    > enhancement
    *snort* Reminds me of a scene in Orgazmo

    >bit of Greek
    OK, at the moment I admit you have stumped me… but I’ll find it eventually!

  6. Feral Boy

    Just put it back into “Babel Fish”! I did it both ways, and it was pretty close …

    — Feral Boy

  7. vakxes

    «Ο Δήμαρχος της Νέας Υόρκης, Μάικλ Μπλούμπεργκ, βραβέυει τον σκηνοθέτη Λεωνίδα Λοιζίδη.
    Στις 16/10/2008 στο Δημαρχείο της Νέας Υόρκης, ο Δήμαρχος Μάικλ Μπλούμπεργκ και το δημοτικό συμβούλιο της πόλης θα ανακηρύξουν τον Ελληνοκύπριο σκηνοθέτη Λεωνίδα Λοιζίδη επίτιμο δημότη της Νέας Υόρκης, τιμώντας τον για την ευρηματική και πρωτοπόρα σκηνοθεσία του στο έργο “ΒΑΚΧΕΣ” του Ευριπίδη που παρουσιάστηκε σε 18 πολιτείες των ΗΠΑ Αμερικής, από το Θεατρικό του Σχήμα στα πλαίσια της παγκόσμιας περιοδείας του.

    Την απονομή της τιμητικής διάκρισης στον καταξιωμένο σκηνοθέτη θα κάνει ο κ. Alan J. Gerson, μέλος του Δημοτικού συμβουλίου της Νέας Υόρκης.

    «Το Ευρω-Αμερικανικό Συμβούλιο Γυναικών( EAWC ) βραβέυει τον σκηνοθέτη Λεωνίδα Λοιζίδη.»

  8. vakxes

    Welcome to the

    Posted October 20, 2008 11:27 AM

    The major theatrical event in this year began with an electrified performance The Bacchae in New York City. . I was recently delighted to have a unique opportunity to view the play in Charlotte, NC one of the most compelling plays from the Golden age of Athens.

    One of the finest of all Greek dramas, The Bacchae powerfully dramatizes the conflict between the emotional and rational sides of the human psyche. When the people of Thebes deny the existence of the Greek god of wine and wild ecstasies, Dionysus punishes them by unleashing the full force of female sexuality, thereby driving them to tragedy and destroying the social order.

    Interwoven with threads of savage, comic, and lyrical ecstasy, The Bacchae, once a war cry for free love, is particularly poignant today in the aftermath of the sexual revolution. It is Euripides’ supreme and most provocative work of art. What is particularly interesting about the Bacchae is that here, more than in any of his other plays, Euripides makes clear the contradictory forces inherent in the godhead, indeed, that a contradictory nature is essential to the nature of the divine, which expresses itself in the close relationship between opposites like joy and horror, insight and madness, innocent gaiety and dark cruelty—such is the power of Dionysus!

    The brilliant director and producer Leo Leozides could be named as the master of ingenious originality for having the chorus chanting Byzantine hymns and for depicting Dionysus as a Greek version of Jesus with dual nature Wow! You have never seen a Greek tragedy quite like this before. The Vakxes creation perfectly capture the play’s shifting balance between comedy and terror in a production that is as daring and outrageous as its epic.

    The prolific director is a great craftsman. I admire his harmonious coordination of the outstanding cast, light, music and his creative innovation of adapting an epic story and shaped it into a mesmerizing masterpiece performance. Every scene reflects a meticulous attention to details, creativity, precise and his highly nuanced act drawn from each member of the cast. His signature” style and colloquial sophistication guarantees the integrity of the uppermost quality of dramatic artworks. I think Mr. Leozides would be one of the most brilliant directors of our times. If Greek tragedy makes you think of musty classrooms, this is a performance to blow the dust and cobwebs away.

    Thomas Nightingale
    Bristol Post

  9. executivepagan Post author

    having the chorus chanting Byzantine hymns

    And had I known that was what they were doing, I would have been happy enough. I’ve checked back through the program, though, and I can see nothing that *tells me* that’s what is happening… but thank you for the additional information!

  10. executivepagan Post author

    Good grief, let it go! Mixed reviews happen to every show.

    Maybe you missed the parts where I said the show itself was good:

    First, the good – the show itself. … the music by Demetrios Katis was quite good … I could tell that the overall effect would have been…quite effective … a first-rate performance by the actress playing Agave … it WAS performed well, in terms of the actual acting…

    I had promised a review of the performance, and I stand by my report of my experience on that particular night, which is the only experience I had to report on.

  11. Johny Preston

    The only thing I know for sure is that I attended the show in Boston.I am so sorry for telling this but it was so stupidly performed, obviously directed by someone unknown untalented director called Loizides. My 1st impression made me laugh watching it, it was like my worst nightmare, it was absolute crap. I can’t understand how it is possible such as losers as loizides come to America and present ancient tragedy. This is business for professionals & true talents.Candles & stupid murmurs by the chorus in the end suffocated my soul. The music which was written by Demetrios Katis was the only truly positive thing in this chaotic mess of the direction.But I can’t understand how come a known composer of this range such as Katis involved into this.Mystery!!
    Overall the show was a disaster!!! If Euripides was alive Loizides would have been a hamburger stand.Shame!!!! Please LEONIDAS respect for the dead!!.

  12. executivepagan Post author

    Yeah… I’m gonna distance myself a bit from the above comment… I wasn’t happy with aspects of the production, but I can’t honestly say that it suffocated my soul. ;)

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