Eli Pauley

Sport for the Gods

Review of Bakkhai, Yale Summer Cabaret

The first show of Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season has come and gone. The Summer Cab’s Co-Artistic Director Danilo Gambini, with a cast of six female actors, delivered a sexy and scary and funny and unsettling version of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy Bakkhai as translated by preeminent poet Anne Carson. As a kickoff to the Summer Cab season one might say the play puts us on alert that theater’s seductions come at a peril. 

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) and the Bakkhai (top to bottom: Zoe Mann, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar) (Photos courtesy of Danilo Gambini)

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) and the Bakkhai (top to bottom: Zoe Mann, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar) (Photos courtesy of Danilo Gambini)

The play has the temerity to put the god—or is that pseudo-god?—Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) onstage and lets him get quizzed and dismissed by Thebes’ king Pentheus (Eli Pauley, in the getup of a military dictator) with the kind of disdain a police chief might aim at a local troublemaker. And Dionysus does make trouble. The women of Thebes—Malia West, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Anula Navlekar and Zoe Mann as an aroused chorus in negligees—are only too ready to worship him and are clearly doing so in a tranced and decadent way. What’s a ruler burdened with maintaining order to do?

Pentheus (Eli Pauley), front; background: Teiresias (Anula Navlekar), Kadmos (Zoe Mann)

Pentheus (Eli Pauley), front; background: Teiresias (Anula Navlekar), Kadmos (Zoe Mann)

We might feel we are watching a comedy in which each side—law and order vs. libidinous license—is going to get a big comeuppance, especially when we see two old-timers, Kadmos (Mann) and Teiresias (Navlekar) jumping on the bandwagon, off to take part in the Bacchic rites in clownish drag. Kadmos is Dionysus’ grandfather. The story is that Semele, Kadmos’ daughter by the goddess Harmonia, was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a lightning bolt—which incinerated Semele, so that Zeus had to rescue the unborn child, sewing him into his own immortal thigh from which Dionysos was born. Born of Zeus via a female half-mortal and half-immortal, Dionysos has no doubts that he’s a true god. And yet. Carson’s translation maintains use of the term daimon or daemon (from which we get “demon”) for what Dionysos claims to be, and that invites all sorts of colorations—especially in our Christianized world—about half-man/half-god hybrids who shake up the status quo with secret rites.

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) with Bakkhai (Malia West, left; Eli Pauley, right)

Dionysos (Sarah Lyddan) with Bakkhai (Malia West, left; Eli Pauley, right)

In any case, demonic is exactly how Lyddan plays Dionysos, an androgynous figure with the eyes, ringed in black, of one who regularly imbibes hallucinogens and a voice of clearest diction that runs from guttural to angelic to searing. Her Dionysos is a trip and a treat and not to be trusted. And that’s where the tragic dimension comes in, in the midst of all the seductive humor and high spirits. Lyddan keeps so resolutely her eyes on the prize, so to speak, to let us know that Dionysos sees all our human hubbub as barely worth his notice. Love him, hate him—in any case, woe unto you. He’s malevolent to anyone who crosses him—which Pentheus’ mother, Agave (Semele’s older sister), did when she dismissed the claim that Zeus was her sister’s lover. So Pentheus has to follow suit—only to be beguiled by the idea of spying on those secret rites . . .

The songs the chorus sings—developed by the ensemble and sound designer/composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe—are ably abetted by the voices of Malia West, who also spellbinds as a Herdsman, and Zoe Mann. The set—by Lily Guerin—occupies a diagonal corner of the space, with grand pillars and black tiles and a section lit bloodred (Riva Fairhall, lighting) when Agave (a fierce Cordero Pino) arrives with her son’s head, which she herself tore from his body, thinking him—thanks to Dionysos—a lion-cub.

Agave (Nefesh Cordero Pino) with the head of Pentheus

Agave (Nefesh Cordero Pino) with the head of Pentheus

As with many Greek tragedies, there’s a somber “joke’s on you” quality to where we end up, if only because these plays were meant to demonstrate to the populace that the gods toy with us for their sport, so don’t get your hopes up about life ending well. A lesson that somewhere—in all the humanizing centuries since—we seem to have lost a clear sense of. Bakkhai is meant to put the fear back into theater.

And, ultimately, it does. Though I would’ve preferred a bit more breathless shock and awe in the Servant (Navlekar)’s delivery of what befell the hapless Pentheus, the image that stays with me is of Mann as grandfather Kadmos, bowed, rotund, particolored, with powdered face, tears streaming as he awakes from a dream, in which gods and mortals can be held to the same account, to the nightmare—called reality—in which only mortals suffer. Eventually, the ages would supply us with a god who suffers and dies for us . . . but that’s another story.

Bakkhai (Anula Navlekar, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Malia West)

Bakkhai (Anula Navlekar, Nefesh Cordero Pino, Malia West)


Bakkhai
By Euripides
A new translation by Anne Carson
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer & Composer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Dramaturg: Emily Sorensen; Stage Manager: Alexus Cone 

Ensemble: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Sarah Lyddan, Zoe Mann, Anula Navlekar, Eli Pauley, Malia West

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 6-15, 2019

The opening of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s next show, María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, has been postponed from tonight, June 20, to tomorrow night, June 21. Shows at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

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.

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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

For information about the season, season passes, individual tickets, the menu and dining reservations, go here.

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