Greek tragedy and rock opera -- the two seem diametrically opposed, one ancient and dignified, the other contemporary and raucous. Yet music can be effectively wed to gritty subject matter; Brecht and Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" and "The Who's Tommy" are just two examples. And what about "Sweeney Todd"? With its choral commentary and themes of cruelty and revenge, it has much in common with Greek tragedy.
So the decision to infuse Euripides' "The Bakkhai," this year's Classical Greek Theatre Festival production, with rock music is not as strange as it first appears. One of the aims of the festival (in its 39th year, the oldest in the country) is to underline the continuing relevance of these plays penned 2,500 years ago, and this experiment comes off remarkably well due to Joe Payne's spirited score, L. L. West's insightful direction, and the energy and enthusiasm of its student cast.
"The Bakkhai" is one of Euripides' final plays, written while he was in exile and not performed until after his death, and it reflects his bitterness about religious and political extremism. Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry and one of its two main characters, seems even more vengeful, unforgiving, and quixotic than the gods in Euripides' earlier plays, and his adversary, the callous, hot-headed young tyrant Pentheus, is equally unsympathetic. His name means "grief," and he brings it on himself and his country by his unrelenting determination to stamp out Dionysus' new religious cult.
The chorus in this play is intriguing. As followers of Dionysus, they are fanatically partisan, yet they share calls for moderation and wisdom with more traditional Greek choruses. The messenger who describes Pentheus' brutal death expresses Euripides' stance most clearly: "The best wisdom is knowing what the gods want and humbling yourself before it." Yet Euripides seems more pessimistic than ever that even that will save you.
Brenda Van der Wiel has garbed Dionysus and the chorus in black like punk rockers, and choreographer Darlene Casanova keeps them in constant motion.
The chorus members, named for the seven deadly sins, switch off singing Payne's upbeat music. You can't always understand the words, but you seem to hear them when it counts.
Andy Rindlisbach is a charismatic, larger-than-life Dionysus, an effective contrast to Ryon Sharette's cocky and petulant Pentheus. Gabrielle Gaston shines in three roles: a herdsman messenger; Pentheus' frenzied mother, Agave; and especially the congenial, philosophical Tiresias, one of the play's few voices of reason. Kory Kyker creates a pragmatic and compassionate Kadmos. John Terry is eloquent and impassioned as the Messenger.
West's direction is clear and uncluttered, and he uses all possible performing areas.
Payne's rock-star stage is embellished by banners with Asiatic symbols. Rachel Zimmerman's wigs are outstanding.
"The Bakkhai" is one of Euripides' most enigmatic plays, but this production makes it dynamic and accessible. Be sure and get there early to catch dramaturg Jim Svendsen's informative introduction.
Bottom line » If you think that Greek tragedy has to be stodgy and serious, this lively, rock-opera rendition of Euripides' "The Bakkhai" will change your mind.
When & Where » Sept. 26-Sept. 27 at 9 a.m. at Red Butte Garden, 300 Wakura Way, Salt Lake City; also, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Shepherd Union Building, Weber State University, Ogden. Performances preceded by a lecture an hour earlier by dramaturg Jim Svendsen.
; tickets are also available at the gate.
Run time » 90 minutes, no intermission.