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Sex, wine and Greek gods

By Steve Coons

The annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival, now in its 39th year, is returning to Red Butte Gardens. The festival left Red Butte for financial reasons after an extended run in the 1990s, but artistic director Jim Svendsen said he always felt that Red Butte was the perfect setting for the outdoor production of a Greek play. This year, the Babcock Theatre presents Euripides’ play “The Bakkhai,” featuring the Greek god Dionysus.

Although the idea of classical Greek drama in an outdoor setting seems to suggest a concern for historical accuracy, the creative team behind “The Bakkhai” had no such concerns.

“We don’t do historical artifacts,” Svendsen said. “We try to make the play alive.”
Director Larry West tried to do that by asking a question based on an experience he had at a Grateful Dead concert: Aren’t rock stars kind of like gods?

The play is presented as a rock opera with Dionysus in the lead role. Most of the actors are dressed in outfits that costume designer Brenda Van der Wiel said were styled after Japanese rock bands. This was done specifically because the play mentions that the barbarian followers of Dionysus came from Asia. The idea that the rhinestone-studded clothes have an Asian connotation was pointed out by Svendsen and West, despite the likelihood that Japanese rock band costumes were styled after glam-and-hair metal bands from the U.K. and United States.

Accuracy was a concern, though, as nearly all parties preached fidelity to the modern American translation. Svendsen goes so far as to insist that the idea of a musical might be more historically accurate than some might think, saying that all ancient Greek plays are musicals featuring six or seven musical numbers by the chorus along with one or two solos. Svendsen said that the creative team behind the rock opera put music in every place it believed that the ancient Greeks would have played music.

Because, as Svendsen said, “We know very little about ancient Greek music,” the team took its cues from the rhythm of the text. If the meter was iambic, Svendsen said he believed that the actors were speaking, and the more lyrical rhythms in the text were probably sung by the chorus.

Meanwhile, Joe Payne, the composer and set designer, described a less exact process, saying, “When it felt to me like they should be singing a few lines, they sang a few lines.”

Throughout, West and Co. sought to appeal to a contemporary audience. Payne says that they wanted the play to be modern, young and hip, and Svendsen said the target demographic is ages 16 to 25. For instance, cell phones pop up in one scene. Svendsen, the Greek expert, said he saw no problem there, describing such anachronisms as “little bits of contemporary life that make the play work for contemporary audiences.” The scene, though possessing amusing shock value, points toward the play’s overall lack of cohesiveness. The production is cluttered with confused Greek, Asian, and American iconography. Modern and ancient mix freely, as do spoken and sung lines. Some speeches by non-singing Greeks seem to stretch on for tens of minutes, and most of the songs sound very similar, even though Payne said the songs were inspired by everything from soul to heavy metal. To boot, the sporadically spaced musical numbers ultimately carried too much importance, which backfired, because none of the Greeks sing, effectively rendering the tragedy that befalls them meaningless.

Meanwhile, the Japanese rocker outfits had kanji symbols of the Seven Deadly Sins printed on them. The set featured banners printed with the kanji symbols for Dionysus and revenge, symbols from Sikh philosophy, and a Gothic Christian Cross, because, Payne says in the production notes, “The Christ story has many parallels with the Dionysus myth, so why shy away from something so potent?”

One might suggest that such parallels could be safely ignored in a tragedy featuring sex-crazed, son-killing, alcohol-abusing, severed-head-displaying Greek women arguing against inherent male superiority. Instead, the central tragedy and the power of the play’s themes of sex, violence and gender are all muted by poor pacing, muddled design, and the play’s overwhelming focus on the idea that rock stars are, uh, kind of like gods.

The Bakkhai concludes its run at Red Butte Gardens with 9 a.m. shows Saturday and Sunday.

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