I have to admit, “The Bacchae” (BOCK-ay) by Euripides (you-RIP-ih-deez) holds a sentimental place in my heart – it was the very first play in which I was cast back in 1969 at Genesius Guild, and where I cut my teeth on Greek tragedy as a member of the chorus.
It was the beginning of over 30 years of acting at Guild under the tutelage of Guild founder Don Wooten; many of the roles were performing in Greek tragedy and which, of course, shapes my point of view.
Euripides was considered one of the greatest of the ancient Greek tragedians and “The Bacchae,” according to Wikipedia, “is considered to be not only one of Euripides’ greatest tragedies, but one of the greatest ever written, modern or ancient.”
The plot revolves around the god Dionysus’ (dye-OH-nye-sus) — who was sired by Zeus with his mortal mistress, Semele – and his anger at and revenge upon his maternal family’s refusal to believe the circumstances of his birth.
Dionysus (Mischa Hooker) exacts his revenge by disguising himself and forming a slavish cult of followers composed of the women of Thebes — including his maternal aunt, Agave (Susan Perrin-Sallak). He returns to the city of Thebes with a contingent of followers a la Charles Manson (Melita Tunnicliff, Bella Kuta, Liz Sager, Zoe Grabow, Kitty Israel, Andrea Braddy, Sarah Willie, and Kathy Calder) to incite a wanton festival.
Ancient seer Teiresias (portrayed by John Donald O’Shea) and Cadmus (Guy Cabell), founder and former king of Thebes, join in the Bacchanalian feast until Cadmus’ arrogant grandson, Pentheus (Jacob Lund), current king, excoriates the old men for their revelry and instructs his soldiers to arrest any participants.
Messengers (Jason Dlouhly and Bob Hanske) deliver news of a violent, frenzied orgy that culminates in the death and dismemberment of Pentheus by his mother, Agave. The tale wraps up with the royal family totally destroyed and sent into exile by the triumphant Dionysus.
I've seen Hooker in a variety of smaller roles in different venues around the Quad-Cities and have long wanted to see how he could handle a major role. His dynamic performance as the dyspeptic Dionysus was powerful and did not disappoint.
Without doubt, however, the laurel wreath for outstanding performance belongs on the head of Jacob Lund as the petulant Pentheus. This relatively young actor has transitioned from lighthearted, comic parts in prior Guild seasons to command the role with potency and confidence as well as negotiating the stage and steps in mask with natural ease.
Director Patti Flaherty is at the helm of this strong, well-performed production, but once again – as in the past two seasons – the flaw in the show is the chorus. While choral odes are delivered well vocally their movement and blocking are awkward, unmotivated, and generally delivered in a boring straight line; their pawing at Dionysus with the intent to portray fawning was stiff and unnatural.
I also could not fathom why, when the chorus wasn't speaking, they were shuttled upstage to face the building. One of the purposes of the chorus is to react to the largely long, didactic speeches of masked characters -- thereby lending variety and modeling for the audience how to interpret the dialogue.
On a far brighter note, Flaherty has initiated an innovation to traditional masks by having a cut-out for the actors mouths (beautifully designed and executed by Emma Doling) which does not detract from tradition and greatly improves the actors' projection and -- at the risk of being redundant -- costuming by the unequaled Ellen Dixon is stunning.
Final note: the gnats are gone! You can enjoy this well-worth-seeing show that runs just a smidge over an hour relatively pest-free. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Lincoln Park, 1120 40th St., Rock Island.