The House Theatre of Chicago’s premiere of The Revel, Damon Kiely’s backwoods Depression-era reworking of Euripides’s classical tragedy The Bacchae, has almost everything going for it. Leslie Buxbaum Danzig directs a nimble, grounded 11-person ensemble who for the most part imbue potentially stereotypical hillbilly hicks with psychological depth. Grant Sabin provides a striking, spartan set design that reinvents the often unwieldy Chopin Theatre and places the audience smack in the heart of the action. Jess McIntosh contributes period-perfect revival hymns. And Kiely writes with grace, assurance, and—most impressively—respect for southern rural characters.
But Kiely pays inadequate attention to the world just beyond the scenes he puts center stage. It’s a key omission, ultimately causing a well-paced, intelligently acted production to collapse into unconvincing hysterics.
Kiely sets his play in an imaginary corner of what appears to be 1930s Appalachia (although no one in town seems to care the sheriff has an African-American wife). An itinerant self-described deacon armed with a guitar, a bowler, and a jug of “salvation drink” opens the show seated atop a set of interlocking stair units (they’re shuttled around throughout the evening to suggest various locations, often creating more clutter than clarity). He launches into a hymn, warning us in the aw-shucks way that makes him both charismatic and unctuous that his singing “is gonna sound terrible and it’s gonna be amazing.” He’s come to lead the town out of darkness, although it quickly becomes clear he’s mostly interested in helping the town’s women see the light. It’s a savvy overhaul of Euripides’s opening, in which the god Dionysus appears and explains that as part of his revenge strategy against Thebes’s widespread disbelief in his divinity he’s driven all the women there mad.
The town here has hit on hard times. The coal mine closed years ago, and now Peter, son of the former strong-arm sheriff, has opened a clothing factory that seems to employ every woman around. To keep the hamlet solvent, Peter’s made a bank deal so desperate that closing the factory for even one day threatens complete ruin (it’s a critical plot point that’s never really made plausible). So once the deacon’s lured the women up the mountain, Peter and his new hand-puppet sheriff plot to destroy the deacon—both to rescue the town and to preserve their newly threatened manhoods.
The linchpin of the impending disaster is Agatha, Peter’s mother, who initially pleads with the women to return to the factory but quickly falls under the deacon’s spell. She’s so zealous that when the deacon must temporarily abandon his flock he puts Agatha in charge, setting up a mother-son confrontation that should unleash the epic passions Kiely tries to pack into the play’s grand climax.
On paper it’s nearly perfect. But onstage that murderous climax feels wholly out of proportion with everything that’s preceded it (and not surprisingly, the actors scream their way through it trying to put it across). That’s largely because, unlike Euripides, Kiely hasn’t created a world of epic scale. In fact, it’s difficult to discern what in this world would stoke such titanic passions.
In Euripides, a bit of supernatural intervention does the trick nicely; when a god drives women crazy, there’s no telling what they might do. But here, about all we know is that the women work in a factory, and they hated the old sheriff whose son they now call boss. Kiely never dramatizes the women’s lives before the arrival of the deacon, so there’s no palpable sense of the struggles they face—and those struggles had better be monumental if they’re going to cause mass defection from the only employer in town in the middle of the Great Depression.
It doesn’t help that Kiely’s plot is short on complications. We spend a lot of time listening to the deacon preach, watching the women “find the spirit,” and eavesdropping on Peter’s scheming with the sheriff. But there’s little sense of compressed time or mounting urgency—until all hell breaks loose all at once near the end. With more adept plotting and a clearer sense of stakes, The Revel might live up to its name. v