Argyle Gargoyle Productions

at Blue Rider Theatre

“Is he decently put back together?” asks Agave, queen mother of Thebes, as she averts her eyes from the mangled corpse in front of her. The body is that of her son, slaughtered by her and her female companions in a mad hunting ritual–a body ripped apart and spread throughout the forest, then carefully but imperfectly reassembled for burial.

Argyle Gargoyle’s production of Euripides’ The Bacchae is a bit like poor Pentheus’s dismembered remains; most of the parts are there, but they don’t quite add up to a recognizable whole. Director David Kropp, working from William Arrowsmith’s translation, has sought to fashion a Bacchae for our postmodern, postindustrial generation. His staging has its share of interesting ideas as well as a handful of genuinely strong dramatic moments, but incomplete conception and erratic execution make for a fragmented realization.

The problem is passion–or rather lack of it. Lack of passion in a passion play is fatal, and make no mistake, The Bacchae is a passion play. It tells of the battle between Dionysus (or Bacchus), god of wine (and the divine madness that comes from drinking it), and Pentheus, the young Greek king who denounces the fanatical religion that Dionysus and his band of female followers, the Bacchae, have imported from the Middle East. Angered by Pentheus’s denial of his divinity–an act not only of blasphemy but of family disloyalty, for Dionysus’s mortal mother was Pentheus’s aunt–Dionysus traps Pentheus by appealing to his repressed attraction to the anarchic spiritual and erotic forces embodied in the bacchic cult. After disguising the king in the garb of a female celebrant, Dionysus leads Pentheus to the hidden site of the women’s orgies and then sets the women, led by Agave, loose to track down Pentheus like a beast and rip him apart.

Though on the surface Pentheus’s death is the price of an all too human folly, at its mythic core The Bacchae is a ritual of sacrifice and rebirth, a celebration of purgative suffering and redemptive unification with a holy spirit. Written by Euripides near the end of his life (around 406 BC) and not produced till after his death, The Bacchae is extraordinarily violent even by the grim standards of Greek tragedy. Yet the carnage is described–never depicted, as all bloodshed takes place offstage–in the heightened, heated, awestruck language of prayer and poetry spoken in honor of a god whose spirit entered the bodies of his disciples when they drank the wine that was his sacred blood.

This sense of religious fervor is noticeably absent in Kropp’s staging. Some moments are played with energy and fire–especially the lyrical speeches of the Bacchae (Kathy Keyes is a fairly compelling chorus leader in these passages). And one section is performed with a combination of grandeur and gut-level need that begins to meet the play on its own larger-than-life terms: Agave’s long scene in which she proclaims her triumph at the hunt and then her grief at realizing the identity of her victim. As Agave, Gretchen Sonstroem, the only cast member who possesses a professional level of technical skill and emotional resources, gives the drama a depth and force entirely lacking until her climactic appearance.

Kropp and his team of actors and designers do display intelligence and creativity in many of their choices, but the show would have been better if the choices had been more consistent, less randomly eclectic–if Kropp had followed through on the atmosphere set up aurally and visually before the actors come onstage. Designer J. Michael Griggs has emphasized the chilly barrenness of the Blue Rider space by adorning its bare brick walls with sheets of plastic, and the taped music by Sound Machine is a cacophonous collage of snakelike rattles (appropriate–snakes were sacred to Dionysus), demented shrieks, and pumping postpunk rock. This environment, suggesting an after-hours warehouse club, is soon taken over by a strutting band of heavy-metal, cycle-slut Bacchae–tough, lean young women in black miniskirts, shiny leather boots, torn net stockings, and outrageously teased hair–and the play is off to a promising start. An underground head-banger hangout would be a fitting battleground for the showdown between Pentheus and Dionysus, a primal turf war between two young men representing the opposing forces of repression and passion.

Instead we see a pair of antagonists whose encounter makes little dramatic sense. Woodrow James Bryant’s Pentheus is a gawky teenager, a nerd posing as a stud, his skinny frame dwarfed by the football shoulder pads he wears to compensate for his still-changing voice. Later, preparing for the women’s ritual, he pops up in a comically demure white dress, like a frightened girl taking communion on the day of her first period. It’s an interesting if gimmicky choice, emphasizing the character’s immaturity and insecurity, but it fails completely to mesh with the unresponsive Dionysus of Cynthia Wasseen. Casting a woman as Dionysus is a not uncommon directorial response to the classic depiction of the god as effeminate and androgynous, but Wasseen’s stiff and sexless performance reminds one more of a college-show Joan of Arc than an embodiment of pansexual power–and it certainly doesn’t fit with what Bryant is attempting.

Among the supporting cast, only Kim Crawford comes close to joining a modern sensibility with the ancient wisdom of the play; as a royal guard clad in military fatigues, he relates the story of Pentheus’s death with a real sense of terror and pity, like a man who’s actually learned something about his own mortality from what he has seen. But only Sonstroem plumbs the play’s extremes of feeling and fuses them into a coherent emotional event in which agony and ecstasy are linked.