Staff Writer Jack Rado saw the Friday performance of the venerated classical drama.

Every Barnumbia student, like every New Yorker, knows that madness is alive and well, perhaps even our dominant mode of cultural engagement. Euripides’ Bacchae, then, is a story as appropriate in our time as it was 2,500 years ago. CUPAL’s recent production of this ancient play has many fine points—dramaturgy, performance, aesthetics—but perhaps its greatest strength is that, in relocating the madness of Dionysus from Mount Cithaeron to a 21st century nightclub, the production makes the high drama of the text viscerally accessible. 

Bacchae advertised itself as “an immersive experience,” subverting the traditional mode of theatrical expression and making the audience a part of the drama. Walking into the Glicker-Milstein Theater (GMT), however, I was struck by the familiarity of the venue. The seats were arranged into the horseshoe shape that should be familiar to GMT regulars, and the set was not quite as sumptuous as I was expecting: a giant, pale yellow tapestry hung on the upstage wall, the floor was scattered with Persian rugs, and there were a few armchairs and sofas from which plastic vines of ivy hung. A disembodied plaster leg sat on the table closest to me. The most conspicuous touch was a chest-high bar near the stage left entrance, from which, during the pre-show phase when the “club” came into its own, neon-colored mocktails were served from plastic cups. 

It’s worth noting that during her pre-show announcement, director Izzy Bohn (GS ’23) informed us that the show had to move venues hurriedly from the Wang Pavilion to the GMT, and praised the design team for their quick work. Given this context, it’s impressive that the set existed at all, and even in a reduced state it was effective—armchairs and sofas, it turns out, are perfect for drunkenly draping oneself over and for cowering behind. I want to give special attention to lighting designer Isabelle Cowan (BC ’26), whose neon color scheme endowed the production with an infectious vibrance that served the plot well.

With drinks in hand (I didn’t take one, fearing I would be carded; reader, they were not alcoholic), audience members were invited to mill about the stage, dancing with the Maenads to a mix of early-2000s club bangers and whichever wistful-indie-princess-turned-pop-singer has the most sway at Barnard right now. The prophet Tiresias (Sydney Gerlach, BC’ 24), with Cadmus (Clarence Chen, GS ’27) attending, gave out palm readings. “Rough, it’s very rough. In: bookstores and coffee shops. Out: staying awake past 3 PM.” “Out: men.” “Out: hetero. Being hetero.” After the audience had settled into the performance space and everyone’s fortunes had been divined, the lights were dimmed and the performers retreated offstage. 

Then out came Dionysus (Maxwell Epstein, SEAS ‘27) to introduce us to the play proper. The city of Thebes, Dionysus explained, has not been sufficiently respectful to him, doubting his godly parentage, and as punishment he has driven its women insane, including King Pentheus’ (Kai Joseph, CC ’26) mother Agaue (Eden Johnson, CC ’25). We were then shown this madness as Agaue performed a hymn to Dionysus alongside her newfound entourage, the Maenads. It was in these scenes with Agaue and the chorus where Bohn’s Bacchae deviated most from its classical predecessor. Instead of one unison voice, the Maenads’ lines were split between individual choristers with distinct personalities. One was a ballet dancer and the other bumped and grinded on the club floor; one reacted to the presence of Dionysus with sublime horror, the other with a bitten lower lip. The Maenads were transformed from the interstitial exposition machines of the original to the play’s most vital and energetic components. Agaue’s role was also expanded from the original where she only appeared at the very end—like her followers, she received many of the lines originally chanted in unison. Her expanded presence added weight to the play’s climax and allowed Johnson to flex her substantial chops in the character’s moments of madness and reverie.

Opposed to the Maenads and Agaue is Pentheus, who sees Dionysus’ ascendancy as a threat to his own power and thus orders him to be imprisoned. Joseph’s Pentheus was, literally, hysterical, switching from calm monologizing to full-chest screaming at the drop of the hat. It was Pentheus, too, who made the fullest use of Bacchae‘s interactive nature; during his tirades, he often grabbed audience members by the shoulders, yelling into their faces and even sniffing them—nose-to-skin contact was not uncommon. Pentheus in this regard is basically a one-trick pony, but he gallops exceptionally well. 

Which is not to say that these were the only moments of interaction. Pentheus chose one audience member and extemporaneously shouted “Is that funny?” at them; a Maenad gave them a drink to recover. When a hunter was torn limb from limb, his bloody hands flew into the audience’s unsuspecting laps. After Pentheus decides to crossdress in order to sneak into the Bacchic ritual, the audience was asked to shout to coax him onstage, a moment that veered on Dora the Explorer levels of faux-interactivity.

Helping Pentheus in his quest to capture Dionysus are three bounty hunters (Kay Evans, BC ’27; Henry Nuñez, CC ’27; José Tallaj, CC ’26, who at my performance filled in for Rochelle Berman, BC/JTS ’27), who buzzed about the space with zany takes on spy-film moves. They succeeded, but Dionysus slipped his chains and engaged Pentheus in a dialogue. The difference in costuming here was striking: costume designer Lucy Walaszek (BC ’25) had Dionysus in a long magenta dressing gown and a silver bralette, while Pentheus wore a standard three-piece suit, the only character to not wear the ostentatious pick-and-mix outfits of the rest of the cast. The visual separation between these two characters heightened the drama of the moments in which Pentheus’ interest in the Bacchic rituals becomes an interest in Bacchus himself and he falls into his arms—moments during which the audience shrieked with equal parts confusion and delight.

Our trio of intrepid heroes returned to the mountain and attempted to spy on the ritual. They are noticed and attempt to flee, but one of them is caught and unwillingly enters into the mass of dancers. The lights turn blood-red, and the Maenads, whose unison lines have felt up to this point uncoordinated, let out an ear-shattering screech. Matthew Kang’s (CC ’25) music builds to a drum-heavy climax. A play that at first treated its text and staging lightly has now turned deathly serious.

You might remember from LitHum, however, that death is never depicted on the Greek stage; after a brief intermission, the remaining bounty hunters returned to narrate to Pentheus the events that the audience just saw. This choice initially seemed clunky, bathetically undercutting the high drama of the moment with the wacky antics of the hunters, but it set a precedent of narration that ended up being important at the play’s end when Pentheus, too, attempted to sneak into the dance. After receiving a feminine makeover from Dionysus, he ascended the mountain, and met with a similar fate to the unfortunate hunter. Instead of the instant dogpile on the first incident, however, this scene played out slowly. Maenad dancers drew graceful circles around their sacrifice before descending into savagery, tearing off his wig and, eventually, his head. Agaue’s triumphant raising of her own son’s severed head was perhaps the show’s most affecting moment, combining the ecstatic beauty and bitterly dramatic irony of the rituals into one held pose. And the post-death monologue returned in full force, as Agaue’s face-to-face confrontation with her son was repeated in slow motion, and the audience was shown in its full glory the chilling flash of rage across her face.

At the end of Bacchae, Agaue broke into heaving sobs after Cadmus lifted the veil from her eyes and she saw that the lion’s head in her hands is really the head of her son. As she cried, Dionysus condemns his followers for dishonoring him, and sends them into exile, and they join fully in her grief. The play ends not with the final line, but with a few quiet sobs in the darkness. Our final image is of the floor of the nightclub strewn with debris. 

It was in these last moments where the play slipped out of its modern aesthetic somewhat. The Maenads reentered not in the lycra and skimpy tops that had come to characterize them, but in flowing white robes. Maybe this is a shortcoming, a lack of commitment to the conceit, but it was also a visual representation of the Maenads’ comedown from the height of their intoxication. The frenzied dance couldn’t last forever. I’ve yet to answer the obvious question: why a nightclub? Describing this production in prose, the plot might as well take place in the Theban hills; for all of Bohn’s dramatic innovation, the text itself remains untouched. By one measure, the nightclub conceit fails: the dance-as-bodily-expression-of-deliriousness metaphor that the setting attempts to make more familiar never quite comes to fruition, since the moments of highest madness are those at which the blocking and the dance feel the most traditional. On another level, however, the nightclub setting and the interactivity work in tandem to lull the viewer into a trance, like Dionysus’ honey-sweet wine. No one, not Pentheus or the Maenads or Agaue, behaved well in Bacchae, and the audience that cheered and whooped and yassed at them was the same one forced to imagine themselves in the characters’ shoes.

Image via Author