Something is very wrong in the city of Thebes. You can sense it the second Dionysus (Jonathan Groff) changes his pants. In the split-second you catch sight of those three-for-five-dollar boxer-briefs, all is revealed—a great and terrible truth writ in flame: The god shops at Old Navy! Okay, I’m taking a cheap shot, but that image—nylon, anodyne, almost absurdly nonerotic—is the one that sticks with me, attached as it is to my dawning revelation that no one and nothing even remotely godlike will be making an appearance at the Delacorte Theater this August. The Bacchae, director Joanne Akalaitis’s return to the Public after a twenty-year exile, is, I’m sorry to say, a tyranny of tedium. Plodding, schematized, gravid with drowsy, earthbound literalism, this production repeatedly, almost autistically insists on the demented, the ineffable, the unsanitary, and the crazed, while evincing none of these things. A kind of trance state does eventually set in, but while Euripides almost certainly didn’t intend to furnish us with a traditional catharsis, he probably wasn’t aiming for catatonia either: Set your watch to Philip Glass’s score (a particularly phoned-in version of his familiar plate-spinning act, plus a couple of abortive arena-rock departures) and you’ll still swear you’ve been there much longer than 90-some minutes.
First, and in fairness, it should be noted that there’s no shortage of bad Bacchae interpretations, and no wonder: The play’s a tough chew. The meatiest role goes to a god—an oddity in Greek drama—and his presence at stage center disrupts the ecology of tragedy in all sorts of fascinating, apocalyptic, and dramatically frustrating ways. The human leads—priggish, practical King Pentheus (Anthony Mackie), his grandfather, the fading Theban founder Cadmus (George Bartenieff), and his mother, Agave (Joan Macintosh)—are wrong-footed and overmatched from the moment Dionysus arrives in Thebes, place of his cataclysmic birth, to wreak revenge. He’s the son of Zeus by Cadmus’ daughter Semele, for whom the union proved fatal: A smoking scar on the stage marks her grave. Dionysus himself was spirited away by his immortal baby daddy, sewn into Zeus’ thigh, and thus carried to term. But Pentheus, Agave, and the Theban elite don’t believe in this “upstart god,” whom the young king brands “a pervert.” And Dionysus is an ambiguous figure, of uncertain gender, parentage, and divinity. Groff and Akalaitis re-create him as an insecure hipster-metrosexual who’s a little bit Joker, a little bit Jonas Brother. He certainly suffers from an acute case of short-god syndrome. But when he boasts that he “came to this city of Greeks when I had set all Asia dancing,” and swings his mike stand Spring Awakening–style, we’re ready to lift our lighters, or our thyrses, whichever’s closest. All right! Rock us, Bacchus!
Ah, but Bacchus refuses to rock (did I mention the score was by Philip Glass?), preferring instead to cackle at his own jokes, supervillain-style. His devotees, the mad, enchanted Bacchants, are similarly unfun, anti-sensual, and non-ecstatic. They sport weird Kahlo unibrows and, in their lumpen orange jumpers, evoke the Balinese cast of Mamma Mia! These huffing, puffing, occasionally power-walking Maenads work tirelessly to infuse the show with a dread it assiduously resists, and they occasionally succeed, against all odds. But boy, can you feel them working. They’re reputed to tear animals limb from limb, but their “Bacchic dances” feel no more ominous than a lengthy jazzercise class—everyone seems to be counting beats or calories. Mackie sweats almost as hard, but he’s on a treadmill: Manly Pentheus sees the power of Dionysus demonstrated time and again, but can’t bring himself to acknowledge this androgynous god. Yet Mackie and Akalaitis never quite connect that stubbornness with a gripping interior psychology—the king’s all-too-obvious repression is played for easy laughs—and we hurtle toward tragedy without much at stake. Horror arrives on schedule, Dionysus collects his blood debt, and a mother, after murdering her son, holds his severed head aloft and wails, “I was mad, and now he is dead.” This should crush the audience, but it comes off as a summing-up. I received the information matter-of-factly, like a Google alert. After an hour and a half of strenuously literal choreography and two-dimensional line readings, can you blame me? This Bacchae has a way of staring the incomprehensible in the face … and falling gently asleep, as if nodding off watching the news or in the middle of halfhearted midweek sex. It’s proof that sometimes, when you look long into the abyss, the abyss yawns.
Through August 30.