The Bacchae: Ancient Greece's 'Helter Skelter'

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By Doug Deuchler

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The group of feral young women driven to promiscuity, madness, and mayhem in the Saltbox Theatre Collective's strongly acted new production of Euripedes' The Bacchae were fascinating to watch. But I struggled to make sense out of the conflict. Then I remembered Charles Manson's "Helter Skelter" girls in the late 1960s — his free-love, murderous "family" commune in the California desert — and it all made sense.

Director Brian Fruits infuses the play with tension, energy, and excitement. From the opening moments, dread and apprehension fill the air.

This ancient Greek tragedy begins with the arrival of the god Dionysus in human form. Charles Howard III plays the powerful protagonist. The god of wine and party boy of Mount Olympus returns to the city of Thebes for vengeance against the house of Cadmus. Dionysus is angered because young King Pentheus is spreading the idea that he's a mere man, not the son of Zeus. Pentheus, portrayed by Michael Apperson, is the cousin of Dionysus. He has denounced his band of female followers and seeks to stamp out this fanatical, rampant religion. 

The Bacchae — those attractive young followers of Dionysus, ecstatic with joy or lust, driven into mad frenzy — are the targets of King Pentheus. Thoroughly integrated into the plot, this Greek chorus is the central element of the play. The actresses are all remarkably synchronized in their movement, wide-eyed and intense. 

Danielle Swanson is the leader, with the others portrayed by Sophia Carlin, Janie Crick, Erin R. Doherty, Angela Jos, Joan Nahid, Alexandria Rust, Adrienne Schmucker, Kim Turner, Stephanie Turner, Alyssa Vierneza, and Katie Zisson. These actresses show an amazing sense of unity and perfect timing, as well as grotesque carnality. They slither and writhe sinuously on the stage, hissing and scolding, a veritable squadron of "backup singers" for the avenging god of merriment.

Penteus is an officious, unbending chief executive who is enforcing order and control. He is especially angered because his own mother, a huntress named Agave (played by Marie Goodkin), has become an active high priestess of the Bacchanal cult. Goodkin is especially strong in the climactic moments of the tragedy when Agave realizes what she's done.

Mark Bernstein plays Tiresias; Eric Roberts is Cadmus, grandfather of Penteus and Agave's father; Jared Williams is a servant; Michael Sullivan is a herdsman; and Brian Bengtson is a messenger.

Euripedes' tragedy is about the dual sides of human nature: the wild, sensual side and the rational, civilized side. This horrific tragedy, Euripedes' final work, was not performed until after the playwright's death.

Staged in the Black Box space at Madison Street Theatre, the production unfolds in a bare performance area. Lighting and sound are by Alexis Vlahos, with sound mixing by Don Kovach. The often dissonant melodies are appropriately sinister.

Daniel'e Taylor Appearson's vivid costumes and masks especially energize the production and heighten the larger-than-life Greek theatrics. With the audience on two sides of the storefront space, the performers present a visually striking tableau from either angle.

This particular 1996 translation is by Dr. Nicholas Rudall who specializes in Greek drama at the University of Chicago. Rudall is also the founding director of the Court Theater and a multiple Jeff Award winner.

This is a somewhat unsettling bloody tale of passion and revenge. We witness the vengeful god Dionysus wreaking havoc on the lives of mortals. But none of the gore is graphically illustrated. True to form for classic Greek drama, violent off-stage action is described in monologue.

But it's a tad perplexing — at least to me — just what specific message we're to take from this solid play. Was Euripedes saying it's not good to deny or ignore merriment and passion — that it's destructive if repressed? Or is he pointing out the potential terrors of unbridled passion? Or both? 

This intense production is crisply directed and strongly acted. It's thrilling to witness this first production of our new local troupe, the Saltbox Theatre Collective. 

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Brian Akers  

Posted: November 1st, 2015 10:23 AM

Bravo and thank you Mr D for this informative, and insightfully delightful report. The comparison for the Tate-Labianca murders with the Bacchae strikes me as vitally profound - especially-in sobering light of one being fiction, the other real life. Some years after reading The Bacchae, a pet name for it dawned on me - All In The Manson Family - 'charlie's girls' as maenads, and the 'family' extended. Pentheus and Dionysus being cousins, their mothers sisters - of contrasting repute. And thereby hangs the tale of course, May I dare offer a take, my own as 'twere - about the very nerve of intrigue I find in this analogy, which you put finger deftly on (I feel)? Its that sense of perplexity you conclude with, smartly so, as to the 'moral of the story' for The Bacchae. Because maybe a sense of answer is illuminated , thank you real life - in the very analogy at the heart of your essay with its probing line of inquiry, 'heart of darkness' style. Essentially in real life - it appears these pathological cult leader types (Manson etc) have 'high expectations' that are - never quite satisfied. The gather followers - who are acceptable as such. But only for maybe a C minus - lowest test fare. Not really good enough for certain (pathological) 'higher ambitions' or purposes. A cult leader has do with disappointing, even frankly annoying followers - for whatever gratifications and satisfactions they provide for a while at least. I had professors who suggested 'consequences of repression' as a theme, with Pentheus kind of tragic fool. But they never mentioned that Manson angle Per 'real life comparison' - everyone is punished by a god in The Bacchae. Not only those on his 'enemies list' as targets - his followers whom he'll use to do his 'dirty work' (as Manson got no blood on his hands), then when done, let them rot. Manson girls go to jail, Pentheus' mother goes mad, by what she's done - in crazed devotion. Moral, it issues warning - dark depths of human condition.

David Hammond  

Posted: September 20th, 2015 9:50 AM

"The Bacchae" as performed by Saltbox was superb, though I understand the point about the volume, and I do believe that this is sometimes a characteristic of younger actors (what one director I knew called "behaving not acting"). However, this was a violent play, so bombast was appropriate. I believe, in fact, that a certain amount of discomfort was calculated: when the Bacchae walk to the edge of the performance space and look hysterically into the eyes of the audience (again, quite appropriately, as they are madwomen) it seems the intent was to be unnerving. It's totally understandable if some don't like that sensation, but I believe the aggressive delivery was a conscious directorial decision and not an oversight.

David Patterson from Oak Park  

Posted: September 19th, 2015 9:58 PM

I enjoyed the show very much myself, with one significant caveat. Why oh why oh why is it that when theatre is performed in a space that's the size of a two-car garage, the actors still feel the need to shout at the top of their lungs at almost all times? It was physically painful to experience. Maybe all young actors need to work the "scream through the production" syndrome out of their systems before going on to more mature work. But I wish at least the powers-that-be who were overseeing the production recognized that when you perform in a very small space, you don't need to "go to eleven," as they say. Otherwise, a very good production.

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