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.