The late and acerbic George Jean Nathan, a 1920’s drama critic and editor – a colleague and friend of H.L. Mencken - was once asked about his definition of theater. “I think,” famously replied Nathan, “that theater is what literature does at night.”
At the conclusion of Red Thread Theatre’s first performance of its season-opening play, “Louisiana Bacchae,” I silently agreed with Nathan. Literature and theater have once again wed, partnered wonderfully at Jim Bush Studios, a converted, sprawling, century-old horse stable.
The scholarly Robert Waterhouse and his team of “true collaborators” – videographer Bush, musician Tom Makar, choreographer/actress Bonnie Jean Taylor and cast members Christian Brandjes, Geoff Pictor, Eileen Dugan, Greg Howze, Harold White and a dancing chorus – have created an unusual, multi-disciplinary, wild and wise theater piece. It’s a “celebration of sexuality and religion, an eerie reminder of the xenophobia, homophobia and police/race relations now plaguing America,” says company co-founder Josephine Hogan. Hyped as “innovative,” the pulsating and puzzling show, performed without intermission, is indeed that and more.
“The Bacchae” was written in 405 B.C., is an adaptation of the last and some say neglected tragedy by the Greek master, Euripides. It’s a tangled tale of “The Cult of Dionysus,” the Greek god of fertility, wine and theater, all of which attracted ecstatic female worshipers who danced orgy-style at festivals and impromptu gatherings.
Euripedes apparently debunked some myths about Dionysus but added a few of his own, his hero caught up in Athens politics and religious controversy and frequently at odds with his cousin, Pentheus, over what playwright Waterhouse calls “the collision between passion and power.” How did I sleep through much of this stuff in my Greek Drama class in college?
Now comes the intriguing part. Waterhouse has brought a modern-day Dionysus to Teb, La., home to Agave, Semele and Cadmus (characters right out of “The Bacchae”), some frolicking women dancing suggestively and with great abandon down in a park, and a sheriff that could easily be the poster boy for “Redneck of the Year.”
The 2016 version of Dionysus is black and has the same fawning female following - bacchants - and electricity of old. He seems to know everything about Teb and its history, scandals and unsolved crimes. A blind and black old man, Dr. T, familiar with potions and incense, also knows secrets and omens. Listen carefully for “Louisiana Bacchae” references to Haitian voodoo and spiritual influences, strange but connective ingredients in this weird, violent story of past sins, intolerance and the future foretold.
Playwright Waterhouse is also director Waterhouse here and he has successfully combined story, the backwater Bayou beats of the talented Makar, the black-and-white, stark and sensual graphics of landlord Bush and the dance designs of Taylor and Lynette Simmons. “Louisiana Bacchae” is powerful, profane, and as advertised, provocative.
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
Greek tragedy adapted by Red Thread Theatre through Oct. 8 at Jim Bush Studios, 44 17th St. Tickets are $25 general, $15 seniors, $10 students. Information at 445-4653 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: Adult themes and language; no one under 18 admitted.