Donna Qi attended the final performance of KCST’s production of Charles Mee’s adaptation of The Bacchae by Euripides, entitled The Bacchae 2.1. The show was directed by Carolyn Friedman (CC ‘21) and produced by Mario Garcia (CC ‘21) and Mira Soni (CC ‘21). Qi had a lot of fun viewing the chaotic and tragic fun of a play that she first learned about in her Literature Humanities class.
The Bacchae 2.1 is a reimagining of the classic Euripides play that, as the director put it, “takes aspects of queerness, foreignness, and taboo that the Western canon ignored… and amplifies them so that they are impossible to forget.” KCST’s effort to adapt this Greek tragedy definitely fulfilled its goals, ushering the themes of civility and order versus otherness, and a rejection of tradition, into an entirely modern context – one that impresses upon viewers the modernity behind some of the ideas the original play grapples with.
At the beginning of the play, Dionysus, played by Kay Kemp (CC ‘22), stands off to the side, out of sight from many of the audience members. They later slink in to dance with the Bacchae, a group of women driven to frenzy by Dionysus and hiding in the mountains. Dionysus’ placement in the ending of the play circles back to this position: observing the chaos they have caused. They are also standing on the periphery when they delude Agave into believing she is killing a lamb, who is actually her son Pentheus. The positioning of Dionysus on the sidelines seems to be taken directly from Ancient Greek pottery, which often had a central action, with gods or other figures standing on the periphery, observing the action.
This was an effective choice, given what we eventually understand to be Dionysus’ character: someone who is hard to pin down, mysterious, and also content to see the havoc they have caused. It advances the idea that this play does not give easy answers.
The setup of the stage was sparing but effective. A dining table with vines and grapes draped around it stood behind the actors. Though the table was used well to draw attention to the conversations, monologues, and the intense physicality of the aides and the Bacchae, the tableware was distracting at some points: the actors accidentally knocked pieces over as they made large gestures or stood up on the table. The arrangement of the characters during the scene where Agave kills Pentheus also could have been more centered, as those sitting in the back could not see the climactic action.
That being said, Carolyn Friedman’s direction was extremely engaging and lured the audience into the chaotic fun and tragedy of Dionysus’ world. There are very quick transitions between the serious and the humorous, such as the shift from the funny interaction between Kadmos, (Ginnie Lee House, GS ‘23), Tiresias (Surya Buddharaju, CC ‘23), and Pentheus (Kristoff Smith, CC ‘22), to Pentheus’ decision to imprison Dionysus. The quick tonal shifts kept the audience on its toes, and really reiterated the tragically and chaotically messy nature of the play.
The best performances of the night were by Josie Bourelly, CC ‘23, playing Agave, and Kristoff Smith, who played Pentheus. Bourelly’s performance was animated and thrilling, and the cataclysmic moment in which she discovers she murdered her own son is heartbreaking to watch–you almost want to look away. Smith’s performance was fascinating to watch, both uptight and greasy, conveying the character’s own conflict between wanting to be the paragon of order, and his undeniable fascination with the women on the mountain and their mysteries. Kay Kemp’s performance was also thrilling to watch, as they effortlessly embodied the ambiguity behind who Dionysus is, his morality and his intentions.
The comedic performances were also a highlight and so delightful to watch, starting from the way Kadmos engaged with the audience to play a practical joke on the blind Tiresias. The messenger’s (Jane Walsh, CC ‘23) surprising arrival in the second half, and report that described the activities of the women on the mountains had the audience laughing on the edge of their seat.
Although the pacing of the beginning of the play was a bit slow, and the ending seemed quite rushed, it was a great time because of the electric performances, the witty banter, and monologues (sometimes dampened by how loud the background music was). I found myself paying extra attention to make sure I understood everything that the characters were saying about their identities and struggles, particularly the women of the mountain sharing their secrets with a cross-dressing Pentheus.
Overall, the KCST’s production of The Bacchae 2.1 did a great job in bringing the play to a modern context, using it to discuss issues of gender fluidity, sexuality, and the hate for otherness and foreignness that seems so prevalent in the world nowadays. I thought it was a great use of 75 minutes, and I can’t wait to see KCST’s next production!
Image via Lexis Rangell-Onwuegbuzia