“The beat!” Boom. “The beat!” Boom. “The beat!” Boom.
A haunted chorus of animalistic females chant only two words, then drop to the ground in unison out of love, fear and utter devotion for their god. These wild women—the Bacchae—are possessed by the irresistibly exciting, dangerously bipolar son of Zeus, Dionysus.
These women give name to the ancient Greek tragedy that the department of performing and visual arts has taken on. Euripides’ The Bacchae dates back to 405 B.C., but in its journey through time from Greece to the Edith Mortenson Center Theatre, this mythological play has been visually modernized while holding true to its ancient storyline.
As the story goes, Dionysus, played by senior Josh Thies, is the god of ecstasy, fertility and wine, but has taken the form of a human. His cousin, King Pentheus, performed by junior Matt Stoffel, refuses to let the people of Thebes worship him, pushing an enraged Dionysus to use his charismatic and divine powers to punish Pentheus.
Augustana’s director of theatre Jayna Fitzsimmons is pleased to be directing The Bacchae, especially since a Greek tragedy hasn’t been done on campus for approximately 10 years.
“I’ve wanted to work with this piece for a long time, and with the talents of the students we have now, it seemed like the right time to do it,” Fitzsimmons said.
Preparing for this play was exciting, but by no means easy. Thies said that aside from memorizing long monologues, the most difficult part of playing Dionysus was mastering such an intense personality.
“Dionysus is either super happy or super angry,” Thies said.
The Bacchae women show their devotion to Dionysus through their chilling chants, crazed expressions and wild body movements. To reach this detached and animalistic state, the actresses had to leave their humanity behind. They envisioned themselves each as a different animal.
Junior Christina Olson became a snake; junior Katelynn Kenney took on the mindset of a lion. “I love the animalistic nature of the Bacchae,” Olson said.
Olson was pleased with the way the Bacchae were able to convey visual excitement by simply moving their bodies in strange ways.
In one scene, the earth convulses due to the wrath of Dionysus. To portray this, the actresses shook violently on the floor. “We made an earthquake come to life with just our bodies,” Olson said.
Through the haunted Bacchae, the overall “beat” of the piece is created.
“Rhythm is so important to this play and the Greek style in general,” Fitzsimmons said. “In this translation, the phrase ‘the beat’ is repeated over and over when we [see the] transformation [of the] women of Thebes into the Bacchae, when their individuality is stripped away.”
To make this ancient piece original, it was decided that the costumes and setting would be contemporary.
“This production is unique because a text like this is, to some extent, open to interpretation,” Fitzsimmons said. “The decision [to make it contemporary] was made in order to bring the action of the play into the present moment, the here and now.”
The modern costumes enhance The Bacchae’s present-day importance.
“Our costume designer, Jennifer Shouse-Klassen…has a particular passion for early Greek and Roman costume,” Fitzsimmons said. “She’s found exciting ways to subtly nod to those time periods even though the costumes are contemporary.”
Thies described the costumes further: “They’re dark but professional with a wild, dirty side,” he said. It fits in well with the “mesmerizing creepiness” which characterized his scenes.
“The Bacchae is one of the more violent, dark plays we’ve done in awhile,” Thies said. “But in the end, it’s essentially about enjoying life. I hope that’s what the audience gets out of it.”
Family betrayal, power struggles between deities and kings, a body ripped to pieces by a pack of wild women, and an unforgettable ending with a powerful message—this is what The Bacchae’s beat is all about. In the words of Thies, it’s dark and it’s dirty. But in the words of Dionysus, “darkness has dignity.”
The Bacchae will be held in the Edith Mortenson Center Theatre Feb. 27-March 3. Student tickets are free with an Augie ID.