With its production of Euripides’ The Bacchae: A Ritual Blood Sacrifice, The Phenomenal Animals presents a feminist spin on one of the classic works of Greek theatre. Seven of the cast’s eight performers are female, and many of them play both male and female roles. There’s a lot to admire about this approach, but Director Rob C. Thompson’s production is muddled and frequently hard to follow.
Euripides’ play, first performed in 405 B.C., concerns a conflict between the god Dionysius and Pentheus, the King of Thebes, who has banned worship of Dionysius. Incensed by the treatment of his followers (a tribe of female revelers known as the Bacchae), Dionysius comes to earth in human form to undermine the king. His revenge starts with humiliation and ends with violence.
Thompson’s production relies heavily on audience participation: actors urge the audience to raise their hands in worship to the onstage altar, and at one point a group of theatergoers gets pulled onto the stage to dance around the altar. This is an enjoyable diversion, but it doesn’t help with the story’s clarity.
A lot of the dialogue in this version of The Bacchae doesn’t make it clear who is talking or what is going on. (The dialogue is verbose and hard to grasp; no one is credited with the translation.) Two walls on either side are covered with graffiti that sets the stage, explaining that we are in the “Forest Temple of Bacchus” or the “House of Pentheus, King of Thebes”; but there’s little explanation of who the characters are, how they are connected, and why they’re behaving this way. Actors frequently switch from character to character without a costume change, which can be disorienting. If you’re up on your Greek mythology, you may quickly figure out the real identity of the character listed in the program as “The Stranger,” if you’re not, this version of The Bacchae may be tough to get through.
Still, an approach to The Bacchae that gives all the political and sexual power to women is to be admired. And the production’s visual imagery is often quite striking and inventive, especially in a scene involving a ritual slaughter. Katie Gaffney’s low-key set design allows a makeshift altar to seem almost grand. And there are fine, disciplined performances throughout, especially Kate Sparacio as the sly, knowing stranger, Grant Bolopue as the pompous king, Emily Dale White as the blind prophet Teiresias, and Taylor Cawley as the prophet’s aide.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 20 minutes, without an intermission.
The Bacchae: A Ritual Blood Sacrifice plays through Sunday, June 26, 2016, at the Phenomenal Animals, performing at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5 – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, purchase them online.