My mother always told me there’s a 90/10 rule to theater: 90% of it is unimpressive, mediocre, and even terrible. The other 10% is so breathtaking in its emotional depth and scope, it compels us to once again brave the tepid hodgepodge 90% in hopes of discovering the next precious gem.
But today I want to tell you about a show on the other end of the spectrum.
There are some things you witness alongside a companion and the camaraderie enhances the experience. There are others that make you wish you could shoot yourself as punishment for dragging someone else into this torture.
I invited several friends to join me for this particular occasion. Only one showed up.
The guy I had a crush on.
The play was The Bacchae by Euripides, and it’s a shame that my knowledge of Greek mythology didn’t trigger some violent, bloody warnings in my mind when I purchased my tickets. But alas, my alarms were on mute.
The Bacchae, per Greek record, are women who give themselves in devotion to Dionysus through the Bacchanalia, which renders them into an ecstatic state that makes them behave like mad animals.
That’s what this play was named for. *Elise shakes head*
Truth be told, I recall little of the play except its ending, which was scarred into my brain.
The story follows Dionysus, a god who sets out to punish the city of Thebes for its disbelief in him and his new religion (which centers on himself). Pentheus is the king of Thebes and Pentheus’s mother, Agave, is a prime target for Dionysus’s fury because she spread lies about Dionysus’s mother.
Gender-bending in this production cast the character of Dionysus, god of chaos and wine, as a skinny Caucasian woman with dreadlocks. This conflicted sharply with my own presuppositions, but I can’t blame the play’s director for that. I have to blame Disney’s original Fantasia film.
You see, my earliest image of Dionysus is that of a pudgy, happy man who gallops around on the back of a donkey, inviting party-people to stomp through huge vats of juicy grapes. Dionysus is also a contented man who drinks rainbows out of a golden goblet. Again, I can’t blame this discord on the director’s choice. But there was discord, nonetheless.
Fast forward to the memorable conclusion of the play. Agave becomes enmeshed in the cult of Dionysus, and while engulfed in the characteristic frenzy of the Bacchae, she kills her own son Pentheus, thinking he a lion she’s slain with her bare hands. She brags about it.
Now here is where I do fault the director’s choice. They brought Agave to center stage, topless, with her hair frizzed out, and had her scream and wave the head of the decapitated son.
The naked bouncing breasts were uncomfortable (as was the wailing), but the element that made it all ridiculous was the paper mache head prop that was supposed to be Pentheus’s head.
I was horrified, but probably not for the intended reasons.
When everything had ended, I turned to my crush with all the fervor and scorn that my undergraduate college self could muster and declared, “That was not good theater.”
Funny thing is, the guy didn’t question my taste or sanity. He stuck around. He actually married me a year and a half later!
And me? Well, I learned to think a little more carefully before buying tickets to just any show.