Friday, February 20, 2004

My bloody Valentine: Hellas no fury like a god scorned

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The initial rumblings about Mad Horse’s production of The Bacchae included a warning: Don’t wear nice clothes to the show. There would be too much blood. Admittedly, it would be stage blood, but the Mad Horses were considering issuing ponchos to the audience, Blue Man–style.

And there was a missive from director Christine Louise Marshall: Also the show’s costume designer, she was worried about "the challenge of hiding bra straps, the way men’s legs look in skirts, and how to wash all the blood out of the clothes. Plus a cast of 14, which is somewhat like herding cats, although they are awfully cute cats, except once they’re covered with blood, when they’ll be far less cute. January and February will be all about blood," she wrote me.

Now February is here, and there were no ponchos issued at the door to the Portland Stage Studio Theater — which one day I will call the Portland Performing Arts Center Studio Theater, but not until people know that the PPACST is in the same building, and up the same stairs, as the PSST. And not until the acronym for the former is shorter and cooler than the latter.

Suitably forewarned (and simply clad), my wife and I headed to the PSST for a nice Valentine’s evening of theater. With a small but full house, some quite clearly also on romantic dates — "Aren’t you brave," mocked Mad Horse artistic director Andy Sokoloff in his opening remarks — we settled in for the bloodbath.

(When given a choice of Mad Horse shows to sponsor this season, the Phoenix chose the bloodiest, most mind-twisting one of the lot. I had nothing to do with the choice, and have no idea if it sheds any light on the workings of corporate Phoenix-dom.)

First, there was a nice, slowish, Greek scene-setting first act, to begin this 2400-year-old play written by a prolific hermit/writer who was fatally dismembered by royal hounds, perhaps in fulfillment of some Bacchan prophecy.

A stranger visits Thebes — Dionysus in human form — driving the women mad and into the hills to prey viciously on animals wild and domestic. Clad in fawnskin and crowned in ivy, they celebrate the god of wine, nature, and theater. Worship of Dionysus, also known by his Roman name, Bacchus, included trance-like ecstasies and secret rites, which he taught his followers.

The women, a writhing, keening, hissing, drumming, surging band of eight, make a wonderful chorus, and their meaning was clear, despite the energetic drumming drowning out a few lines here and there. The group (Nancy Brown, Darci LaFayette, Lisa Muller-Jones, Jessica Porter, Tootie Van Reenen, Joan Sand, Reba Short, and Barb Truex) seemed truly entranced by their worship, which might have included some wine-drinking off-stage, as there was none on.

Pentheus, Dionysus’s cousin and king of Thebes, is outraged by "this obscene disorder" and vows to restore order to his city, and dominion of men over women. The king (played by Brian Hinds) has not a small measure of hubris, and refuses to come to Earth even when receiving a tongue-lashing from a blind, aged sage (Teiresias, played by Johnathan "J.P." Guimont).

Hinds’s Pentheus is a strong man, with a loud voice and the light touch of tyranny endowed by Euripides. Hinds and Marshall know the playwright — a fan of complexity and confusion — wants us to like this insistent king, despite his disrespect for the gods.

Pentheus is deaf even to his own grandfather, Cadmus (Chris Horton), who begs the king to go through the motions of worshiping Dionysus if only because the god is a blood relation and brings honor to the family. (See, blood again.)

In a confrontation with the god, Pentheus denies the divinity and wonders at the stranger’s escape from a dungeon. Dionysus then turns from his normal gleeful lightheartedness into an angry god, demanding respect or a sacrifice. Stamell — a Dionysus helped at times by the theater’s sound system — flips the emotional switch back and forth with grace, at once threatening the king and smiling beatifically at his followers.

As the second act begins, Euripides melds traditional Greek dramatic forms, turning the scene of foreboding into one of laughter and disbelief. The king, trapped by the god’s words, sets forth incognito to spy on the cavorting women. Hinds displays a youthful enthusiasm and a gender-swapping brilliance as he portrays a warrior-king worrying about the lie of his hem and the placement of his curls.

Much of the action in the play takes place off-stage, and is related by the messengers (David Currier and Burke Brimmer), who perform well the re-enactment of events first imagined millennia ago and never actually seen by anyone.

They make clear the recursive nature of a scorned god of wine: Not only does he bring great misery, but supplies the only true means of relieving suffering.

The maddened women exercise unwomanly — and ungodly — power and energy, routing men sent to subdue them, bathing in the blood of their slaughter. A messenger escapes, and must describe the incident to two Dionysian devotees still in Thebes. Currier changes character with ease as he retells the tragic story, and is later joined by a sorrowful Brimmer bearing home a bloody burden.

A gruesome death scene is left to the imagination — for which we can thank Euripides, who has done more combining words and imagination than any actors could do in person. The mourning begins as the madness abates and realization dawns on the women of Thebes, who include Pentheus’s mother Agave and his aunts.

The anguished lament of Agave (Joan Sand) is what first drew Marshall to this play, when she was in a college theater class. Here Sand keens her heart out, understanding what has occurred while the veil of madness was cast over her eyes and mind.

Cadmus’s farewell to a bag of body parts topped by a severed head is powerful and moving as well, grieving his loss and the fate imposed by a vengeful god. (Summary: There will be much call for wine in the lives of the banished Thebans.)

His final plea is one no religion has yet attained: "The gods should be exempt from human passions."

The Bacchae
Written by Euripides. Directed by Christine Louise Marshall. With Joshua Stamell, Brian Hinds, and Joan Sand. Produced by Mad Horse Theater Company at Portland Stage Studio Theater, through March 7. Call (207) 730-2389.


• The Center Stage Players, a theater company for seniors, will present a theater festival on Friday and Saturday, March 5 and 6, at 2 p.m., at the 55 Plus Center, 6 Noble Street, Brunswick. The group, actors, directors, writers and storytellers, will perform a group of short plays, many original works in development for the past few months. Admission is by donation. For reservations, call (207) 729-0757.

• Head up to the St. Lawrence Tuesday, March 2, at 7 p.m. for a forum on the general "state of theater" in the region. Mel Howards is hoping to "develop a collaborative spirit among all those who value theater."