EmptyVenue: Lincoln Center’s Rose Building, New York (Through July 13).
He is a rock star, an exhibitionist and a vengeful god. He is Dionysus as played by stage and film star Alan Cumming in a vibrant production of Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” courtesy of the National Theatre of Scotland.
Opening the monthlong Lincoln Center Festival ‘08, this “Bacchae,” while flawed, finds the contemporary allure in this fine, ancient Greek tragedy.
Euripides liked theatrical moments, and NTS artistic director John Tiffany (“Black Watch”) happily provides them. Cumming, playing the god of wine, enters by descending from the flies upside down, hands cuffed and pretty much butt naked as his gold lame kilt falls around his ears.
Soon this androgynous Dionysus is tossing his black curls and singing into a standing mike, while behind him, a chorus of red-gowned women -- the Bacchae -- launch into gospel renditions of Euripides’ poetry. (Tim Sutton has composed the melodious, often rousing, music, which ranges from gospel to an imitation Motown sound.)
The blood-red evening dresses hint at the human blood that will flow by play’s end, when Dionysus lures Pentheus (Cal MacAninch), the morally rigid king of Thebes, to a violent death.
Director Tiffany makes this production largely about liberation versus repression and religious fervor versus reason -- dualities to which audiences can certainly relate given the religious and political extremism on today’s world stage.
And Cumming is an enticing, playful, if not convincingly seductive Dionysus. Cumming’s god is most effective when he loses the coy attitude and turns vicious, for then the actor shows us power in its most lethal guise.
As for Euripides’ poetry -- some of the most lyrical this dramatist ever wrote -- often it goes missing in the cool, laid-back adaptation by Scots playwright David Greig (“The American Pilot”).
But truthfully? It’s hard to tell. The miking and the sometimes overbearing sound from the band beneath the stage obscure many of the words that the chorus sings so energetically. When an actor is left simply with the words -- as is the wonderful Hazel Holder, recounting the awful fate that befalls Pentheus at the hands of his blood-crazed mother, Agave (an equally startling Paola Dionisotti) -- words are all that are needed to evoke the terror and pity in this magnificent drama.
Cast: Alan Cumming, Cal MacAninch, Ewan Hooper, John Bett, Paola Dionisotti, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Hazel Holder, Melissa Keyes, Sally Amaka Okafor, Lisa Davina Phillip, Sarah Quist, Ann-Marie Roberts, Jessika Williams, Emi Wokoma. Director: John Tiffany. Playwright: David Greig (adapted from Euripides’ tragedy, literal translation by Ian Ruffell). Designer: Miriam Buether. Lighting Designer: Colin Grenfell. Sound designer: Christopher Shutt. Choreographer: Steven Hoggett. Composer and Musical Director: Tim Sutton.