Wow. Just, “Wow.”
So it’s a Greek tragedy, Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” and the Actors’ Ensemble of Berkeley is providing it for free in a beautifully staged production at the outdoor theater in John Hinkle Park. What more could you want?
Everybody needs a Greek tragedy sometime, and this looks like an opportunity that won’t come around too often. If there were absolutely nothing else to recommend this production (and there are many good things indeed) it would be worth seeing for the handling of the Chorus alone. This element of Greek drama is always a challenge: While as a modern audience we accept the fantasy that we’re peering at the actors through an invisible “fourth wall,” it can be hard to buy the idea that a bunch of people happen to be hanging around on stage, chanting commentary on the action.
It’s a challenge that director David Stein has met with enormous success. The Chorus consists of six lovely and talented young actresses who each creates a separate personality. They are a believable group of devotees to the increasingly fanatical ideas introduced to the women in the kingdom by the god, Dionysus (Ross Pasquale). Pasquale turns in a powerful performance as the god who seeks and, through the women, extracts a ghastly revenge on the royal family who denied his heritage as the son of Zeus.
As the Chorus’ worship darkens from almost amusing hedonism into uglier and more brutal behavior, their performances, even their costuming, becomes frightening. No way could anyone ever think of this group as “hanging around the stage.” They’re doing some excellent acting.
“The Bacchae” is a source of some controversy in feminist criticism. One camp sees the play as a classic example of the stereotyping of women as hysterics; another views it as the earliest feminist portrayal. It is, after all, the women who follow Dionysus and are the revolutionary force in the kingdom. It is women who bring about the final tragedy, and it is a woman, the queen, Agave (Donna Turner), who suffers the final and cruelest punishment.
The number of fine performances in so large a cast suggests that Stein may have called in the chips he earned during his own extensive acting career. His debut as a director with Actors’ Ensemble demonstrates a high degree of professionalism and attention to detail. It would be virtually impossible to go through the cast and comment in detail on all the fine acting. Even some relatively minor roles are effectively done—not all, of course, but many.
However, Bruno Kanter’s superb performance as Pentheus, king of Thebes, must be noted. He arrives on stage with an air of natural authority that could not be bettered. His gradual change as he is duped by Dionysus is almost heartbreaking, leading as it does to the grotesque absurdity of his final appearance on stage.
Stein has used the outdoor theater to great advantage. The tragedy is introduced by flute music (Carol Albany and Nancy Taylor) as the huge rose-colored drapes that form the background blow in the occasional breeze. At times, actors disappear up the stairs into the forest, or come from behind the audience down onto the stage. The horror of the destruction is made more real by the sound of West African drumming performed by Ozem Roberts and Joha Williams, second year students at the Ethnic Arts Institute.
This production of “The Bacchae” is a departure for the 45-year-old company; it’s the first time they’ve staged a play outside. The group has been on hold for a year while their usual venue, the Live Oak Theatre, was retrofitted. Unsure of the precise timing of the work’s end, they elected to use the lovely old outdoor theater for this production.
It was a great choice.