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Charles L. Mee: The Bacchae

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September 8—October 22, 2006

LA Weekly -- GO!
Backstage West -- PICK!
KCRW - "Michel is a perfect match for the playwright's work."

Directed by Frédérique Michel
Production Design by Charles A. Duncombe
Cast: Ed Baccari, Juni Buchér, Irene Casarez, Joan Chodorow, Justin Davanzo, Katherine Dollison, Duff Dugan, Troy Dunn, David E. Frank, Joel Nuñez, Nita Mickley, Mariko Oka, Julie Weidmann, Mark Woods



By Steven Mikulan

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Charles L. Mee’s take on Euripides’ Theban tragedy is an acquired taste. Written in the early 1990s, it’s a kind of postmodern celebration of Minoan matriarchy, with scoops of other people’s sexually charged writing thrown in, with authors ranging from Georges Bataille to Valerie Solanas. So it can be lyrically beautiful or sound like open-mike night at A Different Light. King Pentheus (Troy Dunn) is a staunch advocate of heterosexual rationalism and black suits. He loathes the carnal chaos represented by the god of wine, Dionysus (Justin Davanzo) and the Bacchae, his woman followers who live without men in the wilderness. Or does he? Halfway through this 75-minute production, we realize that Pentheus has quite a few secret sides to him, especially when he dresses in women’s garments to infiltrate the cliff-dwelling women’s camp. There’s not much in the way of linear “storytelling” here, and the show relies upon movement, music and declarative oration as much as dialogue. Director FrederÌque Michel displays a confident scenarist’s eye in her stage compositions, and her production shimmers with a languid beauty. She’s ably assisted by production designer Charles A. Duncombe, whose weathered shoreline set, complete with beached boat, gives a sense of shipwrecked ambition, and whose velvety lighting bathes the ensemble, many of whom appear nude or seminude. Josephine Poinsot’s witty costuming swings from modern to timelessly diaphanous.

Backstage West -- PICK!

Three By Mee: Part 2, The Bacchae

September 14, 2006

By Hoyt Hilsman Charles

Mee's reinvention of Euripides' cosmic battle of nature and civilization, of gods and man, is enacted with a stinging contemporary edge in FrederÌque Michel's production at City Garage. Mee's Pentheus (Troy Dunn) is a modern-day neoliberal, an apologist for the fragile veneer of civilization that binds us into a moral and cultural society but also pits us against one another in violent conflict. When the Bacchae -- women under the metaphorical spell of Dionysus (Justin Davanzo) -- reject Pentheus' bargain and abandon "civilization" to live in a state of bacchanalian nature on the cliffs above the sea, Pentheus sets out to conquer them. All this is against the advice of the elder statesmen, Tiresias (Ed Baccari) and Kadmos (Bo Roberts), who are inclined to be more forgiving of the women's return to a natural state of existence. When Pentheus is forced into a Faustian pact to disguise himself as a woman and then is killed by his own mother, Agave (Joan Chodorow), the tragedy of all human endeavors in the name of progress is writ large.

Euripides and Mee, as his successor playwright, do not shy from the largest, most gripping and disturbing of themes. Here is a fifth-century Greek playwright, in league with the modernist Mee, rejecting all human pretenses to decency and morality, casting us back into a state of nature that is animalistic, brutish, and tragic. The ultimate destination of civilization, say Euripides and Mee, is its destruction by the hand of coarse Nature, here represented by Dionysus -- certainly a dark message for a segment of society that is currently dedicated to saving civilization from the threats of terror, global warming, and nuclear annihilation.

Michel's direction is right on target for this piece, illuminating Mee's evocative text with a beautiful stillness of imagery and performance. Dunn, in a strong portrayal, is alternately convincing and repulsive as the voice of civilization, arguing in a vacuum for a cause that already seems doomed. Davanzo is darkly seductive as Dionysus, luring us into the pleasures of the natural world, while toying with our frailties as mere mortals. The rest of the ensemble is solid, supporting the disturbing and provocative tone of the piece. The marvelous set by Charles Duncombe adds to the cosmic subtext.

Los Angeles Times -- RECOMMENDED!

A Greek King at Odds With a God

September 15, 2006

By F. Kathleen Foley

As fascinating as it is flawed, Charles L. Mee's adaptation of "The Bacchae," the second offering in City Garage's "Three by Mee" season, updates Euripides' tragic tale about a Theban king whose stringent propriety puts him at odds with the god Dionysus. Thanks to FrederÌque Michel's insightful staging, the play retains its requisite sense of mystery and menace. But the intellectual sweep of Mee's hyper-poetical text is often interrupted by surreally puerile chatter that makes us feel as if we are trapped on a phone-sex line in limbo.

Michel's languorous staging is a departure from her typically metronomic pacing but is fitting for these bare-breasted bacchantes, whose wild carousing has badly rattled Pentheus (impressively measured Troy Dunn), the kingdom's repressed ruler. In Charles Duncombe's superb production design, the action opens on a drifting vessel filled with drowsing women resting between their revels. Live music punctuates the proceedings, while shrieking gulls, creaking timbers and lowering light eerily presage the disaster.

Michel effectively plays up the homoerotic frisson between Pentheus and Dionysus (Justin Davanzo), a stranger whom Pentheus does not recognize as a wandering god. Pentheus is intent upon returning the errant females, including his mother, Agave (Joan Chodorow), to hearth and home. Capricious Dionysus' main interest is pulling the wings off these human flies and watching them wriggle.

Mee brilliantly illustrates the cataclysmic imbalance that results when a male-dominated society marginalizes its women and, conversely, the tragedy that can follow when women become warlike aggressors. But Mee's leering concupiscence robs the tragedy of much of its sacramental magic. And the fact that Agave's bloody deed is murder - even though she does not recognize the victim as her own son - is simply confusing, especially considering her subsequent protestations that she has killed a wild animal instead of a person.


Greek to Mee & Classic Getty

September 21, 2006

[Listen to the show] This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's always been a great irony that Santa Monica's most avant-garde, European-style theater is next door to a Hooters restaurant. This juxtaposition reaches even more ridiculous heights this month as City Garage stages The Bacchae, Charles Mee's radical reworking of the tragedy by Euripides which tells of lusty females who devote their lives to the god of sexuality.

Not knowing the prices at Hooters, I can't say what $20 gets you there; but I suspect that unless guys are really there for the spicy wings, they'd be getting a much better deal next door, where a ticket to this Bacchae delivers much more bust for your buck.

Frederique Michel's fleshy production is the type of show that would have been shut down by the authorities 40 years ago, which again adds to the irony since her theater is situated in an old police garage. This collision of tastes and sensibilities is a perfect backdrop for Charles Mee's work. Mee's Bacchae is almost Dadaist theater, as he assembles a rough outline of the story, using fragments of Euripides and roughly 12 other texts.

Given the play's subject matter--women who leave the city to form their own society--many of these texts are feminist manifestos. But just as Mee is no slave to Euripides, Ms. Michel is no slave to Mee. The opening stage directions call for Tiresias and Kadmos to appear in Brooks Brothers suits, whereas as Michel has them attired in shorts, red polo shirts and loud argyle socks--this as a bevy of naked bacchanalians writhe around on the other side of the stage. In this way, Michel is a perfect match for the playwright's work, because rather than simply amplify Mee's remix of the Bacchae, she remixes it again in her own way. My one quibble with the production is that much of the music chosen was not as daring as the visuals--though I suppose the topless violinist might disagree.

Frederique Michel and Charles Mee's postmodern take on Euripides stands in sharp contrast to the more traditional view of ancient Greece's last, great tragedian showing at the Getty Villa. The Villa's recent renovation includes a new outdoor performance space built in the style of a classic Athenian amphitheater.

The Getty's inaugural production showcases Euripides' earlier, less controversial play, Hippolytos. This tragedy about the Phaedra myth was performed in a new translation by Anne Carson, which is notable for its sprinkling of modern American vernacular--expressions like "cut the chitchat" and "work with me"--into the dialogue. The staging was entrusted to Stephen Sachs, an artistic director at the Fountain Theatre. As in his excellent productions of Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances and Arthur Miller's After the Fall, Sachs again contributes clean, clear direction that gets out of the way. There's no Iraq war posturing, no Brechtian fussing about. True, some of the soldiers' costumes look like Navajo kilts, but for the most part everyone is dressed in good old-fashioned togas.

The result is a tasteful evening, that elegantly showcases the new venue and its possibilities; but this Hippolytos feels a little too much like an artifact to be viewed behind glass. A 2,400 year-old play can't simply be cleaned up and presented in attractive lighting. The director's hands-off approach is noble, but if the spotlight is to be on acting in the future at the Getty, the museum will have to start a program that teaches authentic Greek performance technique, much like the Globe Theatre's Mark Rylance did with Elizabethan-style productions. Without this, the Getty will have to turn to directors like Michel who will reinterpret classics by stressing the fashions of today. Interestingly, one aspect of Hippolytos did come alive in the Malibu night air--the music composed by David O. His score blended a cappella singing and vocal percussion. As performed by the small chorus, the music created an evocative mood that managed to sound both ancient and modern at the same time.

Hippolytos runs through this weekend at The Getty Villa's Fleischman Theater, The Bacchae continues through October 22 at City Garage in Santa Monica.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


LA Weekly - Theatre Feature

Rage Against the Sex Machine: Why Greek tragedy is no toga party


September 27, 2006

A flute and violin moan somberly as bodies slowly stir in the hull of a beached rowboat; strained light drizzles upon the naked flesh of women and their leader, Dionysus. So begins director Frédérique Michel's 75-minute City Garage production of Charles L. Mee's The Bacchae, an elegant interpretation that shimmers with languid beauty but whose telling sometimes sinks under the playwright's dense blocks of speech. Mee's 1993 reinterpretation of the Greek tragedy includes quotes, he says in the play's introduction, from 'Euripides, Georges Bataille... "insane" texts from the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, Valerie Solanas' SCUM Manifesto, Joan Nestle's Femme-Butch texts' . . . So the evening can be lyrically haunting or sound like open-mike night at A Different Light.

The story is not really about the Bacchae, the wild women inflamed by retsina and lust. Nor is it about their idol, Dionysus (Justin Davanzo), god of wine and fertility, the happy-hour god who was the last of the Greek deities to take up residence on Mount Olympus. Instead, it concerns the king of Thebes, Pentheus (Troy Dunn), Dionysus' implacable foe and a mortal who embodies our own personal conflicts between eros and civilization. Here, Pentheus appears to be a staunch advocate of heterosexual rationalism and black suits. He and his bodyguard-like aids (David E. Frank and Joel Nuñez) are scandalized to find his grandfather Kadmos (Bo Roberts) and the blind old seer Tiresias (Ed Baccari) lounging on the beach attired in the red colors associated with Dionysus' followers.

The king prefers order and the grace of symmetry to the carnal chaos represented by Dionysus. Or does he? During some puritanical declarations, Pentheus admits to many forbidden desires and appears torn between an allegiance to art and beauty and the hankering for a goatier life of disheveled sensuality.

Toward play's end, Dionysus persuades Pentheus, before he wages war on the Bacchae, to disguise himself as a woman and infiltrate the camp of these cliff-dwelling females. After being ceremonially crowned with a wig and swathed in black fabric ('because it is the color of forbidden love between men,' says Dionysus, helpfully quoting German sociologist Klaus Theweleit), the king hovers at the edge of the women's base and gets an earful from the Bacchae.

'There are times,' says Tattooed Woman (Nita Mickley), 'when you can put matchsticks or little wooden objects into your vaginal piercings, and then, after a while . . . just have anal intercourse if you want to use a dildo.'

Exactly, Pentheus must be thinking just before he is discovered and unmasked, whereupon his mother, Agave (Joan Chodorow), kills him with her bare hands - not because of his transvestism but because, under the spell of wine, the women mistook him for a wild animal.

The war between Apollonian ideals and Bacchantic debauchery runs in and out of vogue in art and literature. The 1960s were definitely Dionysus' last heyday, a kind of Topanga Age (or was it Spahn Ranch Republic?) to which people fled from what they saw as the tyranny of logic and the sickness of ideas. Still, after watching the horror on Chodorow's face when she realizes what she has done, one cannot imagine a worse hangover than that suffered by her and the Bacchae after the wine's spell has worn off.

Director Michel's two leads establish a suitably tense chemistry, with Dunn's Pentheus being a one-man civil war of desires who's ripe for the seductive suggestions of Davanzo's deus sex machina. From her dolorous choreography of the Bacchae (whose other members include Juni Buchér, Irene Casarez, Katherine Dollison, Mariko Oka and Julie Weidmann) to the precision of her cast's deliveries, Michel exercises a laudable restraint with Mee's script. Production designer Charles A. Duncombe's weathered-shoreline set and velvety lighting plot lend a subliminal unease to the proceedings, while Josephine Poinsot's witty costumes swing from the modern to timelessly diaphanous.