Madness abounds in The Bacchae

The young god Dionysus is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. He's on a rampage and the city of Thebes is his ground zero. Its proud, rational king Pentheus refuses to worship this interloper, this minor god newly arrived from Asia, whose celebrants lose themselves in wine-induced, sex-charged revelry. The citizens have mocked the god's mother, Pentheus's aunt, refusing to believe that great Zeus deigned to seduce her and leave her pregnant. Entreating the god to show himself to her in his elemental form, poor Semele is charred to ash by Zeus's searing flash of light. Semele's pride and vanity drove her mad, the Thebans sneer. Dionysus won't stand for this wanton disrespect. There's hell to pay. So begins Euripides's classic drama The Bacchae.

One of the three master playwrights of ancient Greece, Euripides was the rebel. His distinctive voice — a real hymn to humanity's faults and inner dignity — rings out with an operatic force that almost broadsides us. His work speaks directly and much more powerfully than that of his peers, Aeschylus and Sophocles, because he writes about the downtrodden and oppressed with such gentle care and empathy. Sacred myths and legends are often turned inside out, authority is severely tweaked and the gods are often ruthlessly mocked. These traits scandalized the all-male audiences during the religious festivals where plays were performed, but this contemporary, skeptical tone makes him one of us.

For Nova Arts Project's "reimagined" Bacchae, artistic director Clinton Hopper is as busy as a bacchant as he tackles the script, the direction, the choreography and the costume design. He fumbles the dancing and finesses the costumes, but scores high everywhere else. To reimagine is just a fancy way of saying they've changed stuff. And Nova has. Some for the better, some for the worse.

Like most ancient Greek drama, The Bacchae isn't easy to put over. Its theatrical conventions often seem alien, remote, full of ritual, like those three different Messengers who narrate the story and describe what should be dramatized: the introductory exposition, the destruction of the city, Pentheus's death at the hands of his own mother. Hopper wisely pares the action by eliminating some of the dramatis personae altogether (the old king and the blind prophet Tiresias), and gives some of the Messengers' static dialogue to the sexy Bacchants (Jonathan Colunga, Katrina Ellsworth, Jennifer Gilbert) who accompany the god on his journey of revenge.

Hopper pulls a neat trick, though, and turns young Dionysus into a woman (stately Portia Gant), but then doesn't follow through on Euripides's ironic intent of showing the elusiveness of gender roles and the attraction of opposites. In the original, Pentheus may say he's appalled by the ecstatic rites women perform in the hills outside Thebes, but he's all too ready to acquiesce to the seductiveness of the god, who dresses macho Pentheus as a woman to infiltrate those secret rites. Hopper cuts out this most telling part of Euripides's play and lets bullish Pentheus (Will Morgan) lumber into the encampment of the modern dance Maenads as if interrupting a performance at Barnevelder. But Gant is an alluring siren, wry and knowing full well her immense power over these puny humans. Measured and statuesque, with a sultry contralto voice, she's a dreamy goddess who can set one afire with a glance — literally. She's the perfect embodiment of Euripides's great theme: that the gods are not like us, they have no compassion, they don't care.

Mischa Hutchings, as Pentheus's mother Agave, silkily transforms from haughty queen to frenzied animal to contrite murderess, worthy of our pity, if not of mercy from Dionysus. In the reimagined role of Monosofias, confidant and right-hand man to Pentheus, and an amalgam of Messenger, Servant and Chorus, Noe Mendoza III commands the stage with quiet authority. His confrontation with Dionysus prior to the dismemberment of Pentheus is a high point as he stoically debates the fate of his beloved city. Mendoza is also the fight choreographer, and his work is particularly realistic yet graphically poetic.

Every now and then Hopper's modern adaptation skids off the rails with an unintentional comic jolt. While Pentheus may be hell-bent on removing the scourge of this new cult from his city, I doubt he'd confront Dionysus with "Listen to me, you crazy fuck." And those wily Bacchants aren't known for their tongue-tripping poetry: "Look at these women and how they move. Isn't it a glorious little groove?"

Will Morgan, a stubborn, blustery Pentheus, has the most difficult role of all. After he is torn apart by his delusional mother and her acolytes, he must lie completely naked throughout Agave's recognition scene. I wouldn't make note of this except that the wild women of Dionysus, on their manic blood spree, romp around in polite bras and panties. The guy's sprawled nude on the cold stage floor, while the gals look like they've arrived from a sleepover. The naked man shouts ancient Greece, the underwear whispers Queen ­Victoria.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover