Euripides certainly knew how to set up a star's entrance. Back in 406 B.C., which really isn't all that long ago, he fooled around for about 90 minutes before he brought on his tragic heroine Agave in "The Bacchae" to wow the crowd in the amphitheater, inducing premature births and draining emotions en masse. I didn't spot any expectant mothers rushing to the doors last night at the Circle in the Square, which began its new season with the tragedy. But Irene Papas, a lovely and heartrending Agave, took the audience in the palm of her hand, the one that wasn't holding her son's dismembered head, with just 30 minutes to go, and wrapped up the evening for us.
She has help, of course. Philip Bosco, an impressive Cadmus from the beginning, stands up to his deluded and then shocked daughter with admirable compassion and firmness. And Michael Cacoyannis has deployed his Bacchanalian chorus and principals in fluid, interesting patterns about the almost totally bare playing area. Too, Paul Perri is an unusually good Messenger who first brings tidings of the horrors just occurred in the hills above Thebes. And Richard Kuss as the Herdsman, that awestruck reporter of the revelry preceding the bloodletting, and Tom Klunis as fun-loving old Tiresias contribute workmanlike performances.
But Christopher Rich, looking more like a shaggy rock star with his long curly blond treses than a Greek god, is a woefully inadequate Dionysus. It has long been a token of praise to say about this or that actor that he or she could move us just by reading the phone book. Well, there were times when that's exactly what I thought this actor was doing. And it's Dionysus, of course, who controls all the events that follow when, piqued at the Thebans' rejection of him and his wildly emancipated Bacchae women, he - and he's a god, after all - returns to his home town. Given a trifling Dionysus, the play loses much of its power.
John Noah Hertzler is a good deal better, though not quite as effective as one might wish, as Pentheus, the stupidly authoritarian young Theban king made a fool of by Dionysus before he's torn to bits to have his head mistakenly taken for that of a lion by his deranged mother Agave. I am unable to single out the ladies of the chorus from the program, but there were only one or two among this ethnically mixed group who quickened my interest when they spoke, though all keened nicely together along the lines set down by Theodore Antoniou, who has provided some helpful incidental music.
There has been no end of speculation over the years about the various meanings of "The Bacchae," though it quite clearly questions the wisdom of flying in the face of authority, to say the least. It's also unfairly slanted, by present-day standards, since Dionysus holds all the cards and takes terrible advantage of the fact. One can't help feeling sorry, too, for the two old buddies - Cadmus, who passed on his crown to his son Pentheus perhaps prematurely, and Tiresias, for both these ancients were feeling young again and looking forward to playing along with the wine god and his spirited maidens until Pentheus put his foot down.
But this "Bacchae," though the first 90 minutes proceed fitfully, is finally worth it all. Not alone for the sometimes startling modernity of the text - Cacoyannis has furnished his own new English translation, by the way, and it's reasonably breezy, with occasional colloqualisms - but for Papas. Her harshly musical voice, her beauty and her command move us as Euripides, master that he was, intended.
Many would say that The Bacchae was Euripides' greatest play, and certainly Michael Cacoyannis's new staging, which opened the Circle in the Square's 30th season last night, would not disillusion them. With Irene Papas and Philip Bosco starred, this is an imaginative and illuminating rendering of a mysterious play that is nervily relevant to today's madness.
Of course its particular contemporaneity is hardly why scholars for centuries have been mesmerized by this 2400-year-old play, possible Euripides' final testimony to the world and even then posthumously produced.
During his lifetime, and the 90 plays he is said to have written - only eighteen survive - Euripides helped modernize the Greek concept of tragedy, partly by the introduction of new stage devices, notably the deus ex machina, whereby a God literally descends from the heavens to sort out the tangles of the tragedy, but also by a more modern sense. This in some ways anticipated certain Judeo-Christian views of God, Man and Nature. As a result Euripides seems closer to us in time, if not depth of feeling, than most Greeks.
What a perfect but risky piece of dramaturgy The Bacchae is. There is a lengthy beginning, that sets up the situation, an equally lengthy exposition that leads to the key tragic act. Now, not until this moment, almost at the play's eleventh hour, does the heroine Agave enter. From here on the play spirals upwards through irony, terror, and finally tragedy with its resolution if not its reconciliation.
The architecture of the play, or, if you like, its sheer pacing, is the most exquisite and unexpected art. Deliberately it is that rare kind of play that can only possibly fall into shape in the spectator's mind after the final curtain. During the play we must suspend not disbelief - the action is logical enough - but judgment. When the last tragic wail has faded into the turmoil of our home-going street, then is the time to think.
The play is about pride - the pride of gods and the pride of mortals. Dionysus returns to his birthplace in Thebes, coldly furious that the Thebans reject his divinity and deny his virgin birth. Accompanied by a group of half-crazed, half-drugged women, the Bacchanites, who worship him, as part religious leader and part pop-star, Dionysus sets about exacting revenge.
Cacoyannis has directed with his customarily sure sense of ritual - the modern and usually apposite translation is his own - and stressed the grandeur of the play. The simple but effective setting and gorgeously fantasticated costumes by John Conklin are vital here, as is the lighting by Pat Collins and the grave and mystical score by Theodore Antoniou.
The performances have little of the stiffness we too often associate with Greek drama. The chorus of nine beautiful women, sometimes participants but finally commentators, move sinuously around the stage with the timelessness of women as creatures of fate and the timeliness of women of circumstance.
As the heroes, both in their Broadway debuts, Christopher Rich's knife-sharp Dionysus and John Noah Hertzler's meanly aggressive Pentheus are excellent, but the two totally memorable performances come from Bosco and Miss Pappas.
Bosco's voice thundering with pain and flashed through with lightening streaks of compassion, plays Cadmus with a chilling reality. Miss Pappas's Agave is a model of histrionic discovery. As she enters, hiding her grisly trophy in her cloak, in mood proud, almost playful, until the moment she faces the fathomless horror of her need, she picks her way through the play with a steady tread.
There are faults with the production. The final peak of the tragedy is never scaled - but perhaps it's unscalable. Nevertheless here is magnificence enough.
For all the grueling excitement of its tragic plot, "The Bacchae" is a play about men's souls, not murder; about choice, not fate. When Dionysus, that cruel but joyous god of nature, arrives in Thebes, its citizens must wrestle with a central and timeless issue of human behavior. How much can we allow our rational selves to surrender to our natural, hedonistic hungers?
Euripides doesn't resolve the question any more firmly than R. D. Laing, but he dramatizes all the possible answers. In "The Bacchae," there are those who give themselves up entirely to the Dionysian revels, those who resist and those who try to have it both ways. As we watch these characters struggle between the unreconcilable extremes of emotional order and chaos, the playwright dramatizes an extraordinary pyschological spectrum. The mythological framework of the drama may seem distant these days, but the dilemmas of its people have not aged a whit in 2,400 years.
Michael Cacoyannis's production of "The Bacchae," which opened at the Circle in the Square last night, is the play's first major New York revival since the 1960's, when Dionysus was understandably all the rage. It does not serve Euripides well. Indeed, if anything, Mr. Cacoyannis's bland literal-minded reading of "The Bacchae" seems to go out of its way to turn a living classic into an inaccessible museum piece.
The lines are all there, in a new, reasonably colloquial translation by the director, and so is the story. But this is a production that offers little beyond conventional spectacle - in a theater space ill-designed for it - as if that were the sum of Euripides's art. It's a "Bacchae" without subtlety of characterization, without sexual passion and without tears.
The problems begin early, when we discover that both of the principal characters, Dionysus and Pentheus, are inadequately cast. It is from these two figures, who are also cousins, that the drama's dialectic is meant to spring.
Dionysus is supposed to be a magnetic, if scary, god, a sinuous Pied Piper of natural instinct, of sex and drugs. Christopher Rich, who plays the role, has the proper androgynous looks, but he lacks presence and vocal range. With his mechanical arm gestures and sly smiles, he is insouciant and smirky, not sensuous and mysterious. As his antagonist, the self-righteous young ruler who tries to banish the Bacchants from his kingdom, John Noah Hertzler is a shrill petty tyrant and no more.
The weightlessness of these performances wreaks havoc on the play's best scenes. One of Euripides's cleverest theatrical ideas is that Dionysus and Pentheus eventually mirror each other to the extent that the drama's central issue can be seen in a tantalizingly ambiguous light. Pentheus becomes so fascinated by the Bacchants that he forsakes his rectitude and dresses as a woman to spy on them; the free-spirited Dionysus ultimately outdoes even Pentheus as an autocrat. That's all lost here.
When we arrive at Dionysus's crucial final moments, Mr. Rich simply doesn't have the authority of a god who can banish mortals to the ends of the earth. Because Mr. Hertzler plays Pentheus as a one-note prig, we can never believe that he would momentarily embrace ambisexuality and eavesdrop on orgies. Indeed, when he disguises himself in golden locks, it's a piece of farcical business out of "Charlie's Aunt" rather than either a frightening or titillating portrait of psychosexual panic.
Mr. Hertzler's performance also has the indirect effect of sabotaging Irene Papas, who plays Pentheus's mother, Agave. When Agave, a Dionysian convert, appears in the play's final section, she learns, to her unfathomable horror, that her excesses of orgiastic frenzy have led her to murder her own son.
The play's chorus does not fill in the passions that the rest of the production lacks. Mr. Cacoyannis's multiracial crew of Bacchants chant Euripides's pantheistic choral odes with admirable clarity, but their Oriental gestures and bouts of eye-rolling are too stylized to communicate orgasmic abandon. We can accept these women only as mouthpieces for their leader's faith, not as practitioners of it. And, in that sense, the chorus typifies the central failing of the entire production. Mr. Cacoyannis has created a remote storybook "Bacchae" about how Dionysus consolidated his power in Thebes. Euripides's play tells instead of how that strange dark god struggles for power within ourselves.
Miss Papas does show off her considerable technique: her eyes gape in sorrow, her mournful moans rise to a piercing cry. And yet her tragedy doesn't seem real to us. It may be because the preceding 90 minutes have long since anesthetized our capacity to respond. But it may also be that this production's Pantheus is so hollow that we are almost glad he's been killed. Philip Bosco fares far better in the role of Agave's wise father, Cadmus. When he reaches out to Miss Papas with both empathy and terror ("I see her now! A sight to make the eyes bleed!"), this wonderful actor convinces us that there's at least one complex character on stage.