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Boxed wine: SITI’s 'Bacchae' at the Guthrie needs a moment of clarity

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

The critic Gene Siskel had a devastatingly simple litmus test: Is this movie more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?

Extending the test to theater, you might be tempted to answer in the negative with respect to SITI Company’s baffling production of The Bacchae, now at the Guthrie. In part, that’s because the venue is promoting the fact that these artists would have so much to talk about over lunch in Minneapolis.

Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj performed with the renowned company as a young actor, working with co-founders Tadashi Suziki and Anne Bogart, the latter of whom directs The Bacchae. The program includes both Haj’s description of Bogart as “the American theater’s great philosopher” and, in a separate feature, her response to that take (“Joe Haj is far too kind”).

So you walk into the theater with some lofty expectations, ready to be challenged. You certainly will be. This Bacchae is fueled by SITI’s collaborative process, but the result in this case is perhaps the least accessible mainstage offering of the Haj era to date: a story varnished to a stylized sheen that discourages emotional investment and may confound anyone not deeply fluent in the text.

That text is a 2,425-year-old Greek tragedy, a famously ambiguous masterpiece by Euripides. It pits Pentheus (Donnell E. Smith), the young king of Thebes, against Dionysus (Ellen Lauren), a god whose worship Pentheus has forbidden. The repressive king is hardly sympathetic, but the method of the god’s retribution exacts some collateral damage that seems... well, excessive.

Dionysian rites sound potentially liberating (especially when, as here, they involve a box of Franzia), but this production portrays the god as a dangerously charismatic egotist who glories in gore. It’s a nihilistic spectacle of pique not unlike Joker, although the aesthetic inspiration for Lauren’s riveting portrayal is more along the lines of Mick Jagger gone hair metal. Sympathy for the devil? Let’s not bring Hades into this; it’s already complicated enough.

The artists’ utter assurance is at once impressive and distancing. They definitely know what they’re doing—but do you? The company’s approach invites audience members to use imagination and empathy to engage with the artists and their decisions, yet engagement is challenging on the grandly formal McGuire Proscenium Stage. When actor Akiko Aizawa delivers a key scene in her native Japanese, with no explanation or translation apparent, it's a moment that could connect more organically in a smaller space.

The show’s treatment of gender is provocative, for better and for worse. When Pentheus emerges disguised in women’s clothing with an astonished smile, he may experience it as liberating—but the audience, who knows the king’s fallen victim to a trick played by a god bent on murder and humiliation, takes the cue and laughs. The New York Times admiringly called this Dionysus a “nasty woman”; even so, the character reeks of toxic masculinity.

The Bacchae
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through April 5