This week, I caught The Bacchae 2.1 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
If you cringed at the thought of a play put on by arts students… you already have a good idea of what it’s like! (I’m half kidding, but hear me out.)
Directed by MFA student Dennis Gupa and adapted by American playwright Charles L. Mee from Euripides‘s work (circa 405 B.C.), The Bacchae (adding “2.1” to a name seems awfully late ’90s/Web 2.0 to me, so it will be henceforth omitted) is a sexy Greek tragedy centred on gender identity, self and sexual expression, and the conflicts that arise both among and within individuals as these go against logic and social mores.
The story in its bare bones (haha) is this: Pentheus, King of Thebes, wants to capture/punish/rehabilitate the largely female followers of Dionysus — Bacchus to the Romans — the god of wine, theatre, and (apparently) religious ecstasy. He arrests Dionysus, but is tricked by the latter into disguising himself as a woman to spy on those who have taken to free living in the mountains. His disguise fails, and he is brutally murdered by one of the women… who happens to be his mother.
In this retelling, Pentheus and his soldiers all happen to have (barely) repressed gender identity issues. Penthesus reeeally enjoys the crossdressing part, and each of them harbours violent sexual fantasies about other men and their own mothers. The women, on the other hand, suppress nothing. They prowl around in revealing garments, fondle one another, and speak openly of their bodies and desires.
To start, the acting is good, and I don’t mean for a student production. I’m no expert, but I’ve always disliked the smarmy overacting you see at Bard on the Beach, where everyone reads lines melodiously! dramatically! without paying any attention to whether the tone fits the content. They speak as if they have no idea what they’re saying. This is not an issue with The Bacchae. The acting is natural, and the delivery of lines is, for the most part, impeccable.*
*Except for the actress who pronounces “barrenness” as “baroness”. But, moving on…
The fawn, the bound girl with the Catholic halo, the furry wearing a giant dildo, Pentheus in his cocktail dress… At least half the costumes look expertly constructed, and work well for the play. The sheer tunic with feeble floral yarn bombing, Dionysus’s second outfit (the gown), and the plain dress with fake blood splattered over the nipples and genitals, in comparison, look shabby and amateur. Perhaps the wardrobe department didn’t distribute their time or budget evenly?
The set looks fine. The sound is fine. The only thing that is truly not fine is the patchwork-y script. Here’s the structure of the play:
-A cool dance around Dionysus!
-Speeches, semantics, sophistry (and gay/transgender hate)
-The big crossdressing scene
-5-second death scene
The segments do not join smoothly, and they vary drastically in quality. The choppiness might be intentional, as someone hypothesizes in the programme, but it merely highlights the contrast between what works and what does not. I did not enjoy being distracted by the less effective parts of the performance. B-cat’s criticism is more succinct: “Being weird for the sake of being weird is crap”.
Despite the script, The Bacchae is still interesting and well-acted, and looks damn good. It will be on at the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC until Feb. 7, 2015.
Here’s the Facebook event page.