In a summer awash with little comedies and light musicals, California Stage producer Ray Tatar is swimming against the tide. He’s mounted a large-cast, elaborate production of a great, grim Greek tragedy, replete with 30-odd costumes by Frances Pendelton and an expansive set by landscape architect Gregory Kondos.
The Bacchae is adapted from Euripides, circa 400 B.C. It deals with the arrival of Dionysus, the new god of wine and a fertility figure. The young Theban king, Pentheus, is a top-down, orderly sort who stresses when the local women take to the hills for all-nighters involving vino, ecstatic dance and (when the frenzy peaks) tearing sacrificial animals to bits with their bare hands!
Need we point out that that a major convention of Greek drama is that any human who opposes a god will be struck down, harshly? Especially when that human is a king. That’s what happens to Pentheus, as well as his entire clan. Even after 2,400 years, the play’s inevitable ending is chilling, intuitive and tragic.
Tatar’s production is uneven, however. There’s professional set design, and there are contributions by noted dramaturge Ric Foster. Then there’s the cheesy recording of dialogue that opens the show, nearly obliterating a lovely voiceover by deep-voiced Bill Miller as Zeus.
Jerry Lee is impressive as young Dionysus—smooth-cheeked and even pretty in a blond wig. Almost androgynous but sexually charged, he turns steely, without a drop of forgiveness, when the play reaches its bloody climax.
Linda Goodrich (as Agave, the mother of the king) does well, as does Cline Moore (the deliberate, doomed Pentheus). Paul Goodyear and Jeff Webster are good as the old guys, Cadmus and Tiresias. Floyd Harden and Wayne Cook prove to be strong storytellers, relating major offstage developments through monologues. Director Khimberly Marshall employs a multicultural tilt with taiko drumming, world music and a diversity of races in the cast.
Overall, The Bacchae succeeds more often than it comes up short. And it’s such a gutsy effort, of the kind seldom attempted hereabouts, that we recommend it, flaws and all.