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Theater Review: “The Bacchae” at Artisphere

WSC Avant Bard reinvents a Greek tragedy—with mixed results.

MiRan Powell, James Finley, JR Russ, and Elliott Kashner in The Bacchae. Photograph by Kristina Sherk.

It should be clear from the moment Dionysus (Jeremy Pace) walks out onstage—with nipple rings and without underwear—that WSC Avant Bard’s The Bacchae, currently playing at Artisphere, is not your mother’s Greek tragedy. Not that you’d even want your mother involved, as far as Dionysus is concerned—not when he’s lulling mothers all over the place into priapic, bacchanalian bliss and tricking them into tearing their children’s limbs off in an orgiastic frenzy.

Disney this certainly isn’t, so you could forgive the Arlington-based troupe for punching up Euripides’s vengeance-soaked drama with some 21st-century influences. The production features an original score by Mariano Vales, adding some flamenco-esque flair to the hipstery affect of it all (the cast wear Toms and Thai fisherman trousers), and the four musicians weave in and out of the chorus, joining the Bacchae onstage for many of their frequent episodes of writhing and moaning.

Vales’s score is creative and lively, and the music alleviates the weightiness of such an intense tragedy. Unfortunately, it also detracts from the acting. Director Steven Scott Mazzola severely underuses his capable cast, including Cadmus (Theodore M. Snead), Tiresias (Manolo Santalla), and Agaue (MiRan Powell), instead relying on the chorus, whose near-constant arm waving and lustful eye rolling feels tedious after a while. Even at 90 minutes, the show feels overly long, and the repetitive feel of the multiple song-and-dance numbers doesn’t help.

Mazzola does create some fantastic moments: Pentheus (Elliott Kashner) appears out of nowhere to haunt his mother (who’s clutching his severed head), and the cast employ some nimble puppetry skills to create the celestial form of Dionysus. But as the god’s human form, Pace lacks sufficient presence in his skinny jeans and laurel crown—he isn’t plausibly charismatic enough to bewitch his legions of female followers, and his quiet voice is frequently drowned out by the music. Kashner is dignified and stoic as Pentheus, but the real star is Powell, who sadly only appears after the show’s first hour to gleefully wave around her grisly trophy.

Scenic designer Jessica Moretti employs a mostly bare platform of a set to help tell the story, but toward the show’s final scenes, it becomes illuminated with constellations of stars. It’s a visually enticing moment, and it reminds us of the potential that could be mined from The Bacchae in our binge-drinking, oversexualized, uninhibited culture. Unfortunately, this production mostly misses its target.

WSC Avant Bard’s production of The Bacchae is at Artisphere through July 1, in repertory with The Tooth of Crime. Tickets ($30) are available through the company’s website.

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