Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A New World: Gordon College Puts on Bacchai

“I create worlds in your imagination; and I can destroy those worlds.” Standing on a ledge, half-hidden in shadow and illuminated by purple light, Ryan Coil ’13 issued the chilling final lines of Euripides’ Bacchai, the Theatre Department's final production of the 2011–2012 school year. Coil's character, Dionysus, warns that the dramatic rites are powerful—powerful enough to bring us into another world with drumbeats and headdresses, gold dust and red water.

The cast of Bacchai indeed created another world for its audience. In this new world, women raged and worshiped the god of wine. The king Pentheus (played by Chris Preyer ’12) fought against the Dionysian rites and became consumed by his notion of justice. The mother of the king, Agave (played by Kelsie Davidson ’12) was possessed by the god and, thinking her son was a lion, killed him with her bare hands. In just an hour and a half, the audience watched, stunned, as we learned the tragedy that Dionysus had visited on this family. But we were also stunned and awed that the tragedy seemed so close to us. The walls between our chairs and shuffling programs, and the characters on stage, vanished as the actors drew us into the very heart of their story.

The set of Bacchai was particularly engaging. Set designer Amber Primm created several levels and sets of stairs where the Bacchai (the group of women) and the other characters could interact. The floor was covered in white paint, and at times became a river, at other times a palace floor. A rock with a bowl set inside it served as the tomb of Semele, and a faint red light hovered over the rock throughout the play. The characters used the set to its fullest extent: jumping from one ledge to another, coming close to us in the audience, allowing the black box theater to echo their words back and forth.

But perhaps most brilliant about this production of Bacchai, even apart from the set and the costumes, is how the actors themselves created a world that compelled the audience. In the final moments of the play, one could hear shocked cries as Agave looked on the face of her son, whose head she was holding after killing him. Faces in the audience looked at the servant telling the story of the tree “as tall as heaven, brought down to earth,” with real sadness.

“This is, in many ways, a play about balance,” explained director Norm Jones, associate professor of theatre, during a talk-back session after the production. On the one hand is Pentheus, who follows logic alone, refusing to acknowledge the physical manifestation of imagination, Dionysus, even as he stands before him. On the other are the Bacchai, who so immerse themselves in Dionysus’ whirlwind presence that they lose their senses entirely. The result of either extreme, as the audience witnessed, is unmistakably tragic.

Bacchai encourages a life of moderation, grounded in physical reality while remaining open to the transcendent. Jones went on to relate this to the Christian faith, discussing specific tenets that do not necessarily make logical sense, but are no less true or beautiful—the Trinity, or Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity in one substance, for example—saying, “These things don’t add up with reason alone, but I would stake my life on them.”

The story of Bacchai has been told for over two thousand years, but it did not lose any of its compelling warning about human pride and desire. The play forced its characters and its audience to acknowledge the power of the imagination, even as our own imaginations helped us enter this new world of ancient Thebes. If anything, the ancient story became all the more compelling and powerful because of the performances. 

Story by Hillary Sherratt ’12, a Pike Scholar from Rowley, Massachusetts, and student writer for the Office of College Communications.

Cast photo by Rebecca Wolseley ’12.

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