Saturday, September 19, 2009

The University of Utah's Production of "The Bakkhai"

I like plays. I enjoy the theatre. I even enjoy "progressive" or "experimental" theatre. Two of the plays I've sincerely enjoyed were progressive adaptations of Nathan der Weise and The Magic Flute. The Egyptian temple in the latter was constructed out of giant light sabers and supported by ninja jackals. I loved it.

I hated this production. I hated almost everything about it. Almost. I thought the banners hanging all over with 酒神 were pretty cool. When I first saw them, I thought, "Okay, Bacchus is supposed to have an Asian mother, but not that kind of an Asian mother, but whatever. I'll roll with it. It's a nice touch.

That's what I liked.

I hated the costumes. The Chorus was dressed in dominatrix-goth-stripper attire and spent most of their time pole dancing. No one enjoyed the pole dancing as much as they did, that I can promise you. I can also promise you that you will not enjoy it.

I hated the music. They tried to turn it into a rock opera/classical drama, but they failed. The music in no way complemented or even matched the text. You see kids, in opera or musical theatre, the composer, who typically knows what he's doing, composes a score that brings out the essence of the text. Despite what you may think, it's not just about being loud. Ugh. The music was just lame. It was so forgettable.

I understand the attempt to be original. People have been performing this play for what, like 2,500 years? But here's a secret of the art: a good production is still better than a bad one, even if the bad one is "different" and the good one is not.

Now let's talk about the acting itself. It was exceptionally poor. None of the actors seemed to know if they were in a farce or tragedy. It was bad. It made the attempts at humor tedious and the climax of the play inconsequential. So much of the motivation behind the characters, the irony of Pentheus' destruction and simply the tragedy of the play were lost to stupid insertions of cell phones and jokes about texting. We got it. Dionysus was like a young rock star. Wow. And most of the players, especially Agaue, had the same intensity and volume in their voice for every single line. Agaue screamed everything. That's not acting. It's screaming. Her lines about killing the lion and killing her son sounded identical. And no one's lines sounded their own. It all sounded forced and unnatural. I think the accents played a critical role in that problem. The Jersey accents attempted by the Servant and First Messenger failed epically, as did the pseudo British/American accents most of the actors attempted.

And what was up with Dionysus thrusting his tongue into everyone's mouth? Larry West, the director, lacks that filter which tells its owner whether an idea is good or bad. He just does any old thing that pops in his head.

And then aside from all the interpretation and artistic direction, it was just a shoddy, sloppy performance. The mics kept going out, players couldn't remember their lines, no one stayed on pitch, etc. It was a catastrophically, cosmically and consummately poor performance.

But you know what? The performers seemed like they had a good time. Going back to how the pole dancer enjoyed the pole dance more than anyone in the audience, I'd like to apply that to the play as a whole. It kind of felt like I was intruding on their really good time with themselves all dressed up in studded black leather. But the audience should never feel guilty of voyeurism.


  1. Which performance did you go to? I went to both this past weekend and I don't recall mics cutting out, and I certainly didn't catch any dropped lines -- I didn't notice any pitch issues either, although I'm not a music student or anything; maybe I missed that one.

    I take some umbrage with basically everything you said, particularly the pseudo-british accents attempted by most of the actors -- or, okay, two of them, for one of several roles they each played -- and a lack of variety in Gaston's performance (which, I should add, included not only Agave but also Tiresius and one of the soldiers/herdsmen -- or did you not recognize her?), but ultimately it's a series of subjective preferences.

    I thought the variety in acting was brilliant, particularly from the two actors (Gaston and Kyker) playing multiple roles. (And what about the instant difference in Pentheus's performance the moment he emerged in a dress? I thought the full-body commitment to the intensive, challenging choreography was stellar on the part of the chorus. I liked the music, the costuming/wigs/makeup, the set design, and the overall interpretive take. And was there a single space in the Red Butte amphitheatre left unused? (That would be a success on the part of the artistic direction.) I do remember a couple instances with trouble understanding lines, but I never felt lost, or as though I'd missed any of the story.

    I can understand why you didn't enjoy it, but I thoroughly did. I think it ultimately comes down to differing preferences, so there's not really anything to discuss there.

  2. There is something to discuss. This performance, at its very core, was a colossal miscalculation. Initially it might seem fitting that Dionysus be portrayed as a rock star, but about a quarter of the way through the play, the analogy begins to fail.

    Rock Stars are NOT the gods of contemporary society. Rock Stars do not exact vengeance on people who do not respect their music. Furthermore, the "archetypal" Rock Star usually ends up dead in a heroine overdose. A MUCH better direction to take this play would have been to make Dionysus a rapper--an artist more identified with vengeance. (And we could have replaced the over-produced and under-conceived grunge rock with a steady beat.)

    The play, as Euripides wrote it, is not so much about sex and booze as it is about the fruits of obstinacy and hypocrisy.

    I will concede that the choreography was largely well done. But once again, it was a miscalculation.

    The singers, however, were irrevocably pitchy.

    What I mean by pseudo American/British accents is that most characters hang somewhere in the middle. They aren't necessarily trying to sound British, but they're trying to lose their Utah (or wherever) accent. It was, in a word, affected.