Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For orignal, please refer to: Strong performances carry difficult ‘Bacchae’ material – Los Angeles Loyolan.
It can be said that “The Bacchae of Euripides,” the newest production by LMU’s theatre arts and dance department, is a strange show. It is an intense show. It is a challenging show. But most importantly, it is a masterful show.
Based on “The Bacchae,” a Greek tragedy written by Euripides, and first performed in 405 BC this version, written by the President’s Marymount Institute Professor in Residence Wole Soyinka, is an African interpretation with powerful musical moments. It requires incredible levels of commitment from each member of the ensemble cast and sky-high energy levels, and under the direction of theatre arts professor Kevin Wetmore, “The Bacchae of Euripides” is a success because it achieves both.
The story is based on the myth of King Pentheus, a man who refuses to follow Dionysus, the god of wine (amongst other things). Pentheus and his mother, Agave, are both punished, as she is possessed by the same bloodlust and passion as Dionysus’ other female followers. Behind the basic plot are greater themes, including the battle between creation and oppression. This production communicates these themes through commanding dance and music.
Wetmore chose to create a sense of controlled chaos in the production, with modern and classical sensibilities merging in powerful fashion. The set, designed by theatre arts professor Maureen Weiss, is absolutely incredible, almost a jungle gym on a sparse stage that is used as setting, prop and musical instrument. Every inch of the stage is used, with actors venturing into the audience for even further exploration of the space. The costumes, which were created by visiting theatre arts professor Sara Ryung Clement, are an interesting mix of African and post-apocalyptic design, a fascinating choice and one that works really well.
While the play is incredibly visually appealing, it could only reach truly masterful status with the help of a strong, committed ensemble of actors. The dialogue is challenging and the choreography demanding, so both require nothing less than top-notch work from all involved. Luckily, there are only a few weak links here – almost every performer does stunning work. Sophomore theatre arts major Julian Garcia is especially stunning as King Pentheus. From his first line, he commands attention and owns the stage with volume and authority. His range is awe-inspiring and his sheer skill is impressive.
Many other members of the ensemble join Garcia in energetic and expressive work. Two that stand out are senior theatre arts major Jeremy Larrere as Tiresias, the blind priest, and freshman theatre arts major Keeley Miller as Agave. Larrere fully inhabits his character, playing not only the dramatic moments but also making the awkward attempts at humor bearable. Miller’s Agave is all about the drama and is something of a one-scene wonder, only appearing during the play’s final moments. But the revelation of her character’s actions is ambitious and impressive.
Several members of the ensemble are given powerful monologues that rarely slow the pace of the show – instead they act as showcases for each performer, even those in otherwise minor roles. Freshman theatre arts and communication studies double major Gabriel Gonzalvez truly wrings every dramatic drop out of his monologue, breaking out of the simple Officer role and making an impact. Junior theatre arts major Nelia Miller gets multiple monologues as the leader of the slaves and knocks each and every one out of the park.
“The Bacchae of Euripides” is not without its faults, however. As mentioned previously, there are several incredibly lowbrow stabs at humor that fall short, especially considering the powerful scenes surrounding them. Why the otherwise devastatingly potent production chose to dilute the drama with painfully unfunny penis jokes and men in drag is beyond me. Additionally, there are several scenes of both the comic and tragic variety that seemed to last forever, affecting the pacing of the show negatively. This production is at its best when it is fast-moving and there’s plenty going on – watching one actor lecture another for 10 minutes is nothing but a hindrance.
Those scenes and choices, though unfortunate, cannot derail what is ultimately a brilliant production. “The Bacchae of Euripides” is more than just a play. It is art in motion with commanding performances by committed actors. It is not to be missed.
“The Bacchae of Euripedes” is now in the middle of its run at Strub Theatre. It has three shows remaining, starting with tonight’s performance, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.