Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: The Wrath of the Gods

Dionysus was the God of wine and theater and a few other things. He was revered by some and feared for his revenge by others. He played an important role in Greek mythology and culture and was even the centerpiece of a Euripides play entitled The Bacchae. As one of the leading plays of the Greek canon, The Bacchae finds itself back on stage in Queens Shakespeare and What Dreams May Co production. Only this time, it’s accompanied with a new prequel companion piece called Sisters of Semele.
Together, Sisters of Semele and The Bacchae chronicle the familiar drama between feuding cousins Dionysus and Pentheus and their mothers Agave and Semele, respectively. In Sisters of Semele, we watch as jealous mortal sisters Agave and Ino deal with their mortal sister Semele who has been impregnated by Zeus. The prequel, written by Chris Rivera, is a play about jealousy and deceit. It sets the scene and helps clarify any character confusion and backstory you may have in The Bacchae, but it’s not entirely necessary for the flow of the evening. By the time The Bacchae arrives, the action shifts a few decades where the battle of morals is flowing as Dionysus seeks vengeance on his cousin, the King of Thebes. Translated by Paul Roche, The Bacchae is a raucous party with a Greek twist of doom and gloom.
photo by Joseph Sebring
Rivera’s script fills about half of the first act. Director Christina Sheehan allows the heightened text to take on a modern approach. It’s welcomed but doesn’t pair perfectly with the rest of the night. That being said, the story Rivera and Sheehan share has shades of a soap opera. And that might all be due to the themes present in the story. With the wide-eyed Agave offering consistent side eye, it’s possible Rivera’s text was originally intended for “The Real Housewives of Ancient Greece”, something that would actually be worth seeing. But in this context, Sheehan’s style didn’t resonate with the companion piece. That being said, the modern vision Sheehan did offer came charging through in The Bacchae. There are sexual undertones in the original story but Sheehan and her company seemed to over-sexualize it. Playing it as a classic Greek drama with giant phalluses is one thing, but without them, it doesn’t land. Regardless of how sexy Dionysus and The Bacchants got, Sheehan seemed completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of bodies she had to handle. Sheehan had little control or structure with her chorus. Plays of this nature have an element where the characters do speak out and address the audience but Sheehan shattered the fourth wall by allowing her company to meander through the risers during some of the storytelling bits. It was one of the many moments of distraction. During many of the exposition-filled sections, Sheehan had her Bacchants act out the tales, not always mirroring the text. With stationary dialogue and active movement fighting against one another, focus was pulled away from the meat of the story. What’s hard about Greek texts is how to establish the Greek chorus. Are they a singular unit? Do they have their own personalities? Sheehan blended the two causing a plethora of actors on stage unaware of what exactly to do.
You almost have to wonder if the company had gone rogue once rehearsals had finished. There were some stand out performances, including the Marshall Taylor Thomas as the strong and solid Zeus in Sisters of Semele and the captivating Rhiannon Lattimer as Agave, who steals the show with her late Act II monologue. Even Jonathan Emerson as the rock star Dionysus had his moments of magnitude. But then comes Pentheus. Chris Rivera’s Pentheus was like a cartoon Bond villain. He thinks he has all the power but hides behind the muscle of his militia. It was an interesting character choice. And it played into the juxtaposition once he is brainwashed by Dionysus. That being said, when he did don the women’s clothing, Pentheus had no vulnerability, something that felt unnatural for the story arc. It was interesting to see him feel comfort in the clothing, but it was a bold thesis that had not been justified anywhere else in the production. Additionally, Rivera lacked complete connection with his scene partners, living in his own little bubble, and relied heavily on big expressions. The Bacchant Chorus lived in their own individual worlds as well, often appearing as the main source of going rogue. Without a set vocabulary from Sheehan, the ensemble just did their own thing which, at times, was drastically different from their neighbor.
To pinpoint the woes from a production perspective would call out the lack of cleanliness between the lights and sound. But these moments were minimal in comparison to the piece as a whole. There was certainly ambition present in this production but the execution was sadly off kilter.

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