Robert Bagg: Poems, Greek Plays, Essays, Novels, Memoir

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THE BAKKHAI in Salt Lake City

September 28, 2009

Tags: Bakkhai, rock opera, Euripides, Utah, Larry West

I'm just back from a visit to Salt Lake City to attend a performance of my translation (University of Massachusetts Press, 1978) of THE BAKKHAI by the University of Utah's Theatre Department. I was persuaded to fly out after listening to some of the production numbers (set by composer Joe Payne) posted on the internet and by news that a performance scheduled at Bingham Young University on September 21st (my birthday!) had been cancelled by the BYU Theatre Dept Chair as unsuitable for BYU undergrads. (Apparently it was some same-sex kissing, the maenads' décolletage, a brief episode of pole dancing and pervasive sensually that crossed someone's line.) The cancellation was big news in SLC, the lead story for several days on local news stations, and had as one salutary side effect increased interest in the two performances on Sept 26th and 27th at Red Butte Gardens on the U of Utah's spectacular campus. This outdoor theater is perfect for Greek Drama: a huge stage, a sloped grassy seating area, with a stark and soaring mountain range looming behind the audience. 600 people attended the Sept 26th show.

The concept of Dionysos as a charismatic rock singer by Director Larry West and the staging that transformed the ancient drama into a modern parable captured the demonic energy of Euripides' exposure of humankind's attraction to ecstasy and violence (see news stories and reviews pasted below); the (nearly constant) dizzying choreography by Darlene Casanova energized both actors and audience; the character-enhancing costumes by Brenda Van Der Weil showed what cult heroes, tyrants, peasants and maenads of 2600 years ago might look like if they could raid the closets of 1960's dudes and groupies. And Joe Payne's score, deployed by sound designer Tom McCosh, drew bursts of applause after every choral ode––and every solo by Andy Rindlisbach, who played the god Dionysos with command and joyous flair. Ryon Sharette gave us a Pentheus, the bullying (but without-it) boy king with just enough curiosity about uninhibited sex to reverse his polarity from macho to feminine, convincingly, in a split second.

Greek Glam Tragedy

By Nancy Van Valkenburg
Sep 17 2009
Standard-Examiner staff

Larry West doesn't consider himself a dusty scholar of ancient Greek literature. "I'm a theater guy, and my target audience is young people," said West, a former Weber State University assistant professor of theater.

So when West was asked to direct Euripides' "The Bakkhai" -- about a cocky new god in town, whose domain was wine, music, dance, theater and ecstasy -- he saw the Greek tragedy for what it really was: A rock musical waiting to happen.

"I read the play and thought about it for a long time," said West, 62 and a WSU graduate. "I asked myself who society's gods are now, and our new gods are celebrities. Our new gods are rock stars. So I turned Dionysus into a rock star. He's new in town, and he's strutting his stuff."

Dionysus, played by University of Utah acting student Andy Rindlisbach, struts Wednesday night at Weber State, when the U of U's Classical Greek Theatre Festival brings "The Bakkhai" to Wildcat Theater.

"We researched Jim Morrison and the Doors," said West, of Salt Lake City. "He was kind of a god, a poet out of control who whipped audiences into a frenzy, which is what Dionysus does in this play. That was my jumping off point. Then I approached my friend Joe, and told him 'I want you to write rock music.' "

Joe is Joe Payne, a 1995 WSU theater graduate, and one of West's students during the three years he taught at Weber.

"Larry was really my mentor during school," said Payne, now 36 and sound designer and composer for Pioneer Memorial Theatre and the Utah Shakespearean Festival. He also teaches sound design at the U of U.

"He doesn't like when I tell this story, but he's the one who told me, 'Joe, you are really talented, but maybe you should try something in theater other than acting,' " Payne said, with a laugh.

Former student and teacher have long since become friends and professional colleagues, and they've collaborated on four other plays for the U's Classical Greek Theatre Festival. Payne also designed the set for "The Bakkhai," inspired by the kind of stage one might see at a Japanese rock concert.

The play

Whenever people ask festival director Jim Svendsen which is his favorite Greek play, he answers, "The one I am working on."

This year, he's telling the truth.

" 'The Bakkhai' is a very cool play," said Svendsen, who also teaches at the U of U. "It's probably my favorite for so many reasons, including intellectual, historical, cultural, but especially theatrical reasons. To come to 'The Bakkhai' is to find out what it means to go to theater."

Dionysus is a newly arrived god, who has not yet been granted the respect he feels he deserves from the people of Greece. He has, however, attracted a significant number of female followers, from the Middle East and from nearby Thebes, who have left their homes, husbands and children to live in the mountains and worship at Dionysus' feet (or, in this production, his studded-leather punk boots).

"The chorus and the men of Thebes and the god all give us different pictures of who Dionysus is," Svendsen said. "There are three huge confrontations between Dionysus and Pentheus, the 18-year-old king of Thebes."

Pentheus, who previously banned the worship of Dionysus, becomes converted. On orders from Dionysus, Pentheus goes to spy on secret rituals held by the god's female worshipers. Quickly detected, Pentheus is attacked and dismembered by his mother and aunts, who are among Dionysus' frenzy-blinded followers.

A tad dramatic?

"Somebody once said there is no tea time in Greek tragedy, no chitchat," Svendsen said, with a laugh. "Everything is huge and larger than life, truly mythic. One of the reasons I find this play endlessly fascinating is it's about the experience between the initiate, the baptized, and his god. It involves a private experience and an intense social experience, with the chorus forming a tight collective, and that togetherness makes the story a strong emotional experience."

The last third of the play addresses why it all happened, with lots of questions raised and left for the audience to ponder, Svendsen said.

"There is something so seductive and attractive about Dionysus, in the first half of the play we cannot help but be seduced," Svendsen said. "The play asks so many questions and doesn't offer much in the way of answers. The final chorus says 'This is how it is.' "

The music

Payne, the son of Utah singer Marvin Payne, had plenty of experience composing historically inspired incidental and transitional tunes for theater. Writing rock-tinged music to suit words penned more than 2,400 years ago was something new.

"The script became our lyrics," said Joe Payne, who borrowed the rock style from the grunge of his youth. "The words were set. I was writing music that had to fit, emotionally and structurally, with tempos and rhythms of a set of lyrics. Usually, you get to write the words and set the music to it. This was purely, 'How do we make music that fits these words?'ââ"

West selected the Robert Bagg translation of "The Bakkhai," because it was the most lyrical he found. In all, Payne composed seven songs to the words of the script. A cast album will be sold at performances, with profits to benefit U of U student council projects.

"I've never written music that was the primary focus of the show before," Payne said. "It was difficult, but incredibly rewarding."

Payne decorated his set with ancient symbols for wine, power and revenge. Actors who aren't dressed in togas or gowns wear leather and netting, and most characters sport glam rock makeup and wigs.

"The actors are just having a ball with the costumes and songs," West said. "They're having a lot of fun with it."

The director does admit to growing up during a whole different rock era than his former student.

"I just saw the film 'Taking Woodstock,' and man, it would have been cool to be there," he said, wistfully. "I wasn't there, though. I was on an LDS Central States mission at the time. I do remember hearing my first Doors music on my mission, which was probably breaking some rule. So maybe you could say I was a kind of rock rebel."

Brigham Young University cancels play
By Alexandra Hall
September 21, 2009
Source: The Daily Universe, BYU

Just hours before the play was to be shown on Monday afternoon, Brigham Young University canceled the University of Utah’s production of the Greek tragedy, “The Bakkhai” because of content not suited for the BYU audience.

BYU’s official statement on the subject, in a news release, said:

“While we respect the work of our colleagues at the University of Utah and plan to continue to have the Annual Greek Festival perform at BYU, ‘The Bakkhai’ itself presents difficult material and the approach of this production could be problematic for members of our audience.”

BYU decided not to show the play on campus Monday afternoon for several reasons, but mainly because of the content of the play itself and of this particular production.

“Earlier in the day Jim [Svendsen, artistic director of the play,] and I had several discussions about this particular production and as the chair of the theater department I have made the decision that we will not have that performance here due to just a couple of things that have to do with our audience,” said Roger Sorensen, chair of BYU’s theater department.

“‘The Bakkhai’ itself is difficult material and the particular approach and concept for this production will be problematic for some of our audience members which we felt we would like to not have.”

Roger Macfarlane, a professor of humanities at BYU, said he had been informed that 350 tickets had been pre-sold and that they were expecting many students to purchase tickets at the door. All ticket holders will receive full refunds, including any service charges.

Early Monday morning, while the cast and crew were setting up, both schools came to a consensus that the play should not be performed.

Director Larry West said questions addressed in the play could be applicable to Latter Day Saints students and regrets the opportunity to not be able to perform the play at BYU.

“‘The Bakkhai’ on its surface is about sex, wine and losing one’s inhibition and at its core is about defining God,” West said. “I would have loved to discuss this in the BYU setting.”

In a preview article for the performance, which ran in Monday’s edition of The Daily Universe, West was quoted as saying:

“We may push the envelope a little bit but that is certainly not my intention to do anything other than what is in that play and what is in that play are those questions and big issues about religion and sexuality.”

The above quote about pushing the envelope may have referred to the modern interpretation of the play and the choice of costumes, both of which were factors in the production not being shown.

A pre-performance lecture, however, still took place at 4 p.m., where Svendsen spoke of the relevance and importance of this production and Greek theater.

Even with the last minute decision to pull the play, both universities plan on continuing to work together in the future.

“This is something that we agreed on that just made sense for this production and next year we will come back with a new production,” Svendsen said. “We have been doing this since ’82.”

Salt Lake Tribune
Review: This Dionysus has rock-star flair
Euripides' classic is revisioned with a modern edge, original rock tunes.

By Barbara M. Bannon

Special To The Salt Lake Tribune

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.





Comments

  1. June 21, 2011 11:42 PM EDT
    I love you, Larry!
    - Montag

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