Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Get Your Rocks Off

July 07, 2008

Alan Cummings and cast of The Bacchae
Photo : Richard Campbell/Natl. Theater of Scotland

Did I mention that I got to see Alan Cumming's naked ass this weekend? I know that generally speaking, this may not be an unusual sight for New Yorkers, but it was new to me. Inspiring as it may have been, it pales in comparison to the many other charms of the theatrical event in which it occurred – the Lincoln Center Festival’s current run of Euripides’ The Bacchae. The production, imported intact from the National Theater of Scotland, stars Cumming at his puckish best as Dionysus, here envisioned as a sort of rock and roll star. While he may not have performed “Kashmir,” he got more than a few chances to perform songs from a variety of American popular music idioms with his own back up chorus, The Bacchae. His is a ferocious performance, all sly and leering in his golden kilt and vest with long black curls framing his face. Here he plays a petulant and easily insulted deity in search of revenge against those humans he feels have ignored him and continue to do so. Along the way he brazenly helps Pentheus, played here by Cal MacAninch, get in touch with his feminine side in a manner that highlights all of the camp elements implicit in the story to a modern eye.

The energy throughout this production is full throttle and never backs down until the final scene when Pentheus is dead, a god has his vengeance, and it’s all over but the shouting. At this point Agave, played by Paola Dionisotti and Cadmus, played by Ewan Hooper, give rather moving performances as they begin to realize it's all fun and games until someone puts an eye out. As with the National Theater of Scotland’s last touring production to be seen here in the United States, the much overrated Black Watch, John Tiffany's direction of a new adaptation from David Greig of the Euripides classic is strongest in its visual elements and style. The colors are kept simple, and visual special effects pack a lot of punch with seemingly small gestures. Flowers dart from above planting themselves at Semele’s grave, Pentheus’ castle burns down with the walls of the set itself bursting into flames, and the red gowned chorus glides through choreography that is both fervently energetic and often beautiful. Dionysus delivers his final tirade against his doubters in front of a bank of megawatt lights pointed directly at the audience. He’s one angry dude that proves all play and no work is also a state not to be tampered with.

If I have any criticism, it’s that this is not the most psychologically minded Bacchae you’ll see. Certainly there is plenty to ponder about insults to the ego of a god, and how childhood tragedy gets carried around for years to come. But, the humans here are hollow and simple. Just last year, Frédérique Michel offered a much more compelling portrait of Pentheus and his family in Charles L Mee’s take on Euripides' play staged in Santa Monica for City Garage. Mee's Pentheus’ is at the center of the play where his own discomfort with a desiring self leads to the downfall of everyone around him, while the gods act in the background, a blank slate for the humans to project themselves upon. The National Theater of Scotland group has a rocking good time in a very attractive package, but the engagement is elsewhere.

This production of The Bacchae takes place at the Rose Theater, one of the stages that make up the Jazz at Lincoln Center space in Columbus Circle. Although Saturday’s matinée was not at capacity, the audience reaction was quite enthusiastic. It’s a solid and very attractive production well worth seeing. There are performances through the end of this week.

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