The Bacchae

Shakespeare in the Park, Play

Theatre: Delacorte Theatre | Company: The Public Theatre

BOTTOM LINE: Even though it is free, I’d suggest skipping this. If you’ve seen The Bacchae before, you’ve probably seen a better production. If you haven’t, this production shouldn’t be the first one you see.

There are some good things about the Public Theater’s production of The Bacchae, now playing in Central Park. It is free. It is outside. It is about 90 minutes, no intermission. And most likely, you won’t need to camp out overnight to get a ticket (like many did earlier this summer to see Twelfth Night). Are there bad things? Well, you have to sit through this boring, boring production.

It isn’t that The Bacchae, by Euripedes, is a boring play, or even that the ancient text is in any way difficult to understand. Dionysus (a god) gets upset at King Pentheus (a mortal, and also his cousin) for refusing to worship him, so he drives Agave (the king’s mother) and a bunch of other women crazy. Agave tears her son apart, limb from limb, and then is heartbroken when she comes to her senses and sees that she is holding her dead son’s body parts in her hands. There is lots of ecstatic, even orgiastic behavior here: madness, violence, and tons of blood. This is a play that could be many things (raw, sexual, sensual, earthy, disgusting, tragic, frightening, seductive) but boring should not be one of them. Unfortunately, even though I knew it was a short one-act play, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

My biggest problem with this production is the Chorus of twelve women. I feel bad for the actors- they have to remain on stage the entire time, singing slow, monotonous music (it reminded me of something a cantor in church might sing). Other characters also sing, but the score (composed by Phillip Glass) is never appropriate for this piece. The choral singing is accompanied by “movement”- the women prance around the stage performing random gestures that seem completely disconnected from the actual text. These chorus sections sap what little energy there is from this production. Plus, the women are saddled with some of the ugliest costumes I’ve seen on stage in a long time (bright orange and yellow MC Hammer pants!). Unfortunately, this is just one example of the inexplicable costume choices. If someone can figure out why Teiresias ends the show in black sequined pants, please let me know.

But there are additional problems. In my opinion, Jonathan Groff is miscast as Dionysus. Dionysus should be seductive and sexual, someone who draws us in to worship him. But here, Groff comes off as a whiny schoolboy (especially at the beginning, when he complained that no one would worship him). This worked well in Spring Awakening (he starred as Melchior), but not so great here. A few other names people might recognize: Anthony Mackie (recently seen in The Hurt Locker) plays Pentheus, and André de Shields plays Teiresias, the blind prophet. Both are fine in their roles, but neither stands out in a way that held my interest. (I didn’t like Mackie’s cross-dressing scene at all - he goes from hesitant to put on a dress to super campy in about 5 seconds. But I blame director Joanne Akalaitis for this.)

In fact, this production seems so misguided that I’m guessing Akalaitis had some kind of driving concept in her head (perhaps a desire to go back to the performance style of the Ancient Greeks, combined with Dionysus as a Christ-figure?), one that caused her and Glass to ignore the show as an audience member might see it. In any case, this concept is not communicated to the audience at all. So all of the choices appear extremely random, and because there is nothing exciting to watch, boredom sets in very quickly. I felt like I was watching a PBS lecture on Ancient Greek theatre. Or like I was in a church, watching a Sunday school class put on the play. I actually found the program (with extensive dramaturgical notes) more interesting than the production.

If after all of this, you still want to see The Bacchae (it is free, after all), the good news is that it probably won’t be difficult to get tickets. I got to the park about 6:30pm and waited on the standby line. Even though it seemed as if I was fairly far back in the line, I got a ticket. While this was my first time waiting on the standby line, I’ve heard that if you’re there by 6 or 6:30 (5:30 to be really safe), you probably shouldn’t have any trouble getting in. (Caveat: if you are going with someone else, you won’t be guaranteed two tickets together, since the standby line is only 1 per person). And because I really don’t think this will be a hot ticket, I can’t imagine the line will get worse. Of course, you could also go to Central Park when they do their initial distribution at 1pm. (And again, I don’t see the need to get on this line super early in the morning).

(The Bacchae runs through August 30th. Added performance (stand-by line only): August 24. No performance: August 25. The show plays at the Delacorte Theater, located in Central Park at 81st Street, Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm. It is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. Normal ticket distribution is 1pm at the Delacorte (2 tickets per person). Tickets are handed out to the stand-by line starting at 7:30pm (these are 1 per person). Tickets are also available through the virtual line, and there are a few days of outer borough distribution - see for more info.)