The Theater God is Present

Preview of Bakkhai, Yale Summer Cabaret

Last summer, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of this year’s Yale Summer Cabaret, took a trip to Greece, a longstanding goal from the time of his study of mythology in college and his reading of all the Greek tragedies in 2009. As he sat in the theater of Dionysus in Athens, he began “crying compulsively.” He also had a nosebleed, which may have had to do with the atmosphere and the physical exertion of hiking. In any case, the event was for Gambini an epiphany, which might be an actual manifestation of the god, Dionysus, the guiding spirit of ancient Greek drama, there “where the craft and art” Gambini practices “was born.” Gambini says he “made a pact with Dionysus” that day, a “renewal of vows” as a theater director, that “at the next opportunity I would do a Greek tragedy.”

That opportunity is the opening show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season. Euripides’ Bakkhai, in Anne Carson’s recent translation, opens June 6 and plays for sixteen performances through June 15.


His choice of Bakkhai, Gambini said, comes from the fact that Euripides’ audacious play puts Dionysus himself on stage. The play has been getting a variety of revivals of late, including at Brooklyn Academy of Music last season, and Girls, a modern adaptation by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, will open the Yale Repertory Theatre’s next season. Gambini discussed the play’s message for our times with his cast and said the consensus was that “it was clear that the play is about women and female power and the suppressed voice of women finding a release.” He added that Pentheus, the king of Thebes in the play, says things that are “too familiar from Trump.” So, in a way we might say that the current attention to the play is the theatrical equivalent of the 2017 Women’s March in protest over Trump’s election. Gambini quoted a line in the play that describes the women “overjoyed by the sheer absence of men.” Gambini’s six-person cast is comprised of female actors.

For Gambini there’s a deliberate camp element in that choice, which he defines as “having fun with theater.” Pentheus and Dionysus, in Gambini’s staging, are played as “drag kings” by Eli Pauley and Sarah Lyddan respectively, a distancing effect that Gambini spoke of as a deliberate element of current theater’s approach to gender politics. The choice of gender in casting roles, he said, “explores how to tell the story from one side, or extreme, or the other.” He lets his actors have a lot of agency in how they choose to tell the story, including the music of the chorus which was worked out by the actors in ensemble with sound designer and composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe.

There is humor in the play and Gambini finds that Anne Carson’s contemporary language helps the comedy land. Gambini described Carson’s writing as “visual,” a form of “concrete poetry that talks to me and inspires me in seeing the play’s spatial construction.” She writes, he said, “the way I stage.” For Gambini, an attraction of the Cabaret is that its intimate setting, without the usual separation of actors from audience, allows him to explore the kind of theater that is most meaningful to him. In his view, “text is a pretext to create an event” and the “audience is always seeing what they are seeing.” Which means that the idea of theater as an illusion of action happening elsewhere is dropped in favor of treating theater as an event at which both the cast and the audience are concurrently present.

Gambini sees Bakkhai as a play that questions a society’s beliefs, which includes religious faith and the status of the occult. The play was first produced late in Euripides’ career, and is “fully mature,” Gambini says. But with that maturity comes a definite interest in “how to transgress” further. Putting the god on the stage and having him argue for the vanities of the gods indicates, for some, Euripides’ cynicism toward religion, but also shows him addressing the very powerful social force of religious belief.

Danilo Gambini

Danilo Gambini

Gambini says that, originally, tragedy for the ancient Greeks was an “outlet—it enabled them to live what they didn’t want to live.” And he sees the same purpose provided by theater today, as well as TV and film. He stated that the etymology of the word “tragedy” derives from “chant of the goat,” which means that the poetry of tragedy was conceived as the song of the dying animal—a goat—sacrificed in religious ritual. While tragedy, Gambini said, “can be dark and even heartbreaking,” he sees the form as “voluptuous,” celebrating “joy and pleasure” in the physical body.

Greek tragedy, Gambini said, “survived because the plays keep speaking to our times.” The battle between an oppressive government—Pentheus often seems more a bureaucrat than a king—and a wildly inspired populist cult, and the status of faith in capricious gods versus a more reasoned ideal of humanity are themes that, it’s easy to see, have never ceased clashing in human society. At the Yale Summer Cabaret that drama plays out once again—with the added attraction of watching director Danilo Gambini fulfill his pact with Dionysus.


Euripides’ Bakkhai
Translated by Anne Carson
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Yale Summer Cabaret
June 6-15, 2019

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