Acclaimed playwright puts modern spin on Greek myth

Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2013, 11:47 am
Comment on this story | Print this story | Email this story
By Jonathan Turner,

A 2,400-year-old Greek tragedy gets a raunchy, exuberant retelling this weekend asAugustana College premieres "The Bock-Eye,"a bold and bawdy postmodern adaptation based on Euripides' "TheBacchae."

Written by acclaimed American playwright Tommy Smith, "The Bock Eye" is a blend of oldand new—condensing of an ancient story, but with a strong contemporary attitude for today's audiences.

"The language is very modern, very contemporary. It may not be appropriate for some viewers," guest director Saffron Henke of Davenport said this week. "The theme of 'The Bacchae' might be 'Don't mess with Dionysus or you'll get it,' but the theme of 'The Bock-Eye' is more like 'That dark Dionysian thing inside you will come out, no matter what you do,' and even The God himself is not safe from it."

Ms. Henke -- who two years ago directed Augie's production of "Metamorphoses" -- said Mr.Smith "was very true to the original play, doing an almost line-by-line condensing of the material, with the exception of an added prologue, and different ending."

"It feels almost like a music video or a cartoon, a graphic novel," she said. "It's a freight train of a little show -- an hour and change with no intermission."

Dramaturg Gregory Donley '14, a theatre arts and classics major from Silvis, added: "Dionysus is
clearly a cruel and angry god in both works, but Tommy Smith adds a tongue-in-cheek humor to the character, without detracting from his power.

"Pentheus is also unchanged, and remains a generally foolishking who cannot resist his own morbid curiosity towards the practices of the cult," he said. "Though much of the toneis changed, the songs written and sung by the chorus serve as a very strong connection to the style of Greek theater."

A graduate of the playwriting program of The Juilliard School, Mr. Smith has had his plays produced across the U.S., as well as in Prague, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Montreal, Berlin and Athens. His award-winning theatrical collaborations with Reggie Watts have played at The Public Theatre, Lamama, The Warhol Museum, MCA Chicago and ICA Boston, among other venues.

Ms. Henke earned her bachelor's degree in theater from the University of Iowa and master's of fine arts in acting from the University of Washington. She has acted in more than 50 productions throughout the U.S. and in Greece and Germany. Her favorite roles include the 24 characters she portrayed in the one-woman show, "The Syringa Tree," at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City.

Currently assistant director of the Grant Wood Art Colony at the University of Iowa, Ms. Henke last fall was guest director for St. Ambrose University's production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." She was asked last summer by Augie theater department chair Jeff Coussens to direct in Rock Island again, and to consider "The Bacchae."

"It's rarely produced because it's difficult to produce. I read several translations, and didn't really like any of them," Ms. Henke said. She and Mr. Smith previously worked together when she ran an acting school in Sacramento, Calif., and he wrote a rock musical for her company about Greek mythology, and it toured Greece in 2006.

"His career has really taken off," she said. Mr. Smith and Ms. Henke will stay after the opening night show Friday night to answer questions. "It's a pretty special event -- very different kind of theater than you normally see in the Quad-Cities," she said. "It's an accessible way for them to connect to the Greeks. The messages are still valid, but the access point of how we get into the language changes."

Mr. Smith replaced the long choral speeches in the original (that explain the action), with a five-member female chorus that wrote its own songs they perform.

"The ladies are performing their story for us and for him, as sort of a worship of him," Ms. Henke said of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, revelry and theater. "The play comments on those traditional ways Greek plays are written. They are worshipers, run off into woods, breast-feed wild animals, and make honey and milk come from the ground."

"Greek plays are many things, but they were not intended to be confusing -- hence, why the chorus often summarizes what we just saw five or six times," Mr. Smith said by e-mail. "I feel I have essentialized the piece by removing confusing names/titles, streamlining the action, and staging more explicitly the violent and deviant acts delineated by the play's language."

The adult language and situations in "The Bock-Eye" need to be a little shocking because "if you're going to a Greek play and you don't see an image that shakes you to the core, then the adapters haven't done their job in bringing the inherent baseness of that theatrical world to a modern stage," he wrote.

If you go

-- What: Augustana College's "The Bock-Eye."
-- When: Friday through Feb. 3; 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 1:30 p.m. Sundays.
-- Where: Potter Theatre, on the upper level of Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts, 3701 7th Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $11 for the general public, and $9 for senior citizens, students and Augustana faculty/staff, available at (309) 794-7306 or


Local events heading

  Today is Monday, Oct. 20, the 293rd day of 2014. There are 72 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The store of Devoe and Crampton was entered and robbed of about $500 worth of gold pens and pocket cutlery last night.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Michael Malloy was named president of the Tri-City Stone Cutters Union.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Dewitte C. Poole, former Moline newspaperman serving as vice consul general for the United States government in Paris, declared in a letter to friends that the once gay Paris is a city of sadness and desolation.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Plans for the construction of an $80,000 wholesale bakery at 2011 4th Ave. were announced by Harry and Nick Coin, of Rock Island. It is to be known as the Banquet Bakery.
1964 -- 50 years ago: An application has been filed for a state permit to organize a savings and loan association in Moline, it was announced. The applicants are Ben Butterworth, A.B. Lundahl, C. Richard Evans, John Harris, George Crampton and William Getz, all of Moline, Charles Roberts, Rock Island, and Charles Johnson, of Hampton.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Indian summer is quickly disappearing as temperatures slide into the 40s and 50s this week. Last week, highs were in the 80s.

(More History)