Adapted and Directed by Theresa Kim
April 21-May 1
Staller Center for the Arts
SUNY Stony Brook
Stony Brook, NY
Reviewed by Floraine Kay
SUNY Stony Brook
'It is a gesture that can lead to the creation of a fictional space, perhaps even a ritual space, in which the actor's body can achieve a transformation from the personal to the universal.' --Tadashi Suzuki, The Way of Acting
Theresa Kim's recent adaptation of the Bacchae presented at the State University of Stony Brook was effective in two respects. Firstly, it was a pedagogical success. The students, many of whom had only been trained for three months in the rigorous methods of Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, displayed awareness of gesture and pose and were able to produce their voices effectively and clearly without Western styles of enunciation or vocal modulation. Secondly, the production itself was stunning, and the style lent itself well to the presentation of the heroic figures.
What did not come through, however, is exactly what kind of god Dionysus has become in this production, nor the nature of the bacchants. Dr. Kim focused on individual roles and moments within 'shamanic sacrifice.' No clear definition of this sacrifice emerged from the sequence of individual scenes. Although the presence of Korean shamanism is clear in both costume and music, the meaning of shamanism as it should be applied to the myth of Dionysus, and ultimately to the definition of the chorus, is unclear.
It is not difficult to accept Dionysus as a 'god' constructed of Suzuki gestures. Dionysus (Dmitry Vaizburd) remains almost perfectly still throughout his entrance speech. When he did lift his arm, just barely, to indicate Lydia and Phrygia, he succeeded in creating what Suzuki calls 'fictional...perhaps even ritual' space. His walk, slow and almost soundless, made him seem more than human.
But the audience is never given an entry into the rationale of the god. He is on stage to observe both the dismemberment of Pentheus and Agave's recognition of what she has done, but as a silent observer. He is pensive, sorrowful, and not recognizably sensual in the way Pentheus describes him.
There was no quality of his which was shared by the bacchants. Nor does Kim seem to have made a decision as to how Dionysus will communicate with them. They are silent throughout the play, except for their initial entrance. Their line 'Blessed, blessed are those who know the mysteries of god,' seemed more terrified than ecstatic. They were dressed in red kimonos and hurled about the stage, bodies low to the ground. Their hair quite literally stood on end. (The chorus members, who were both male and female, were also asked not to shave for this production.)
Though their entrance is described as 'a swirling dance of ecstasy,' there is nothing erotic in their worship of Dionysus. Their voices are plaintive and sound mostly from the lower range. They were arranged so that those bodies closest to the ground were nearest to the audience, and seemed a mournful, angry mass. Kim seems to have chosen to present them as instruments of the destructive element of the god. This becomes clear during the 'orgy' which precedes Pentheus' dismemberment. Each chorus member 'straddles' Pentheus and then the group mimes pulling the body apart. The rhythm of the drum is continuous throughout the scene and does not escalate towards frenzy. Dionysus stands above them, watching from a platform, with traditional Asian clouds and flames behind him. Pentheus (Matt Roth) exits the stage accompanied by a solo flute. The tone is somber.
The roles of Cadmus and Teiresias in this production are better defined than that of the chorus. Suzuki's method helps to distinguish their characters: for example, Cadmus (Jason Trinidad) walks slowly, bent forward. The dance of the two old men is particularly poignant because otherwise they stand so still. This is the only place where the joy of worshipping Dionysus is realized. Their joy becomes confusing, however, when they join the chorus, their garments indistinguishable from those of the bacchants.
Pentheus has the largest movements. He bounds across the stage. It is most unclear why he is allowed such freedom of movement, though the contrast of his bounding with Dionysus' slow grace is startling and works well to create the illusion that Pentheus is being transformed by the supernatural. But who is Pentheus? His costume is half Greek, half Asian. His curiosity clearly outruns his denial of pleasure, but nothing in the production accounts for his death. The chorus never makes its call to a sword- bearing justice.
Kim cuts from Pentheus' 'transformation' to his dismemberment to the reactions of Cadmus and Agave. The production ends with Agave mourning her son. Dionysus does not return to explicate the story or sentence her and Cadmus to exile. The sacrifice gives some meaning to Cadmus' line 'He like you blasphemed the god And so/ the god has brought us all to ruin at one blow' (Arrowsmith's translation). Even so, the punishment seems more than arbitrary. We witnessed Pentheus' blasphemy without truly understanding the god against which he acted.
Agave (Olivia Parry) is a bacchant who is more wild than angry. Her entrance line, 'Happy was the hunting,' is well-suited to her. It was her performance which was most a fusion of Western and Suzuki methods. She used facial expressions and free movement to produce an effect of madness. Whereas every other character was given a distinctive walk evolved by Suzuki's method, Agave's is unstructured. She doubles over and squats when she recognizes that she has killed Pentheus. Her voice, though spoken from its lowest reaches, has a nearly natural intonation. The mask which represents Pentheus' head claims the stage at the end of the play, highlighting her tragedy. But the role she played in the ritual sacrifice was unclear.
Theresa Kim's adaptation of Euripides' Bacchae ultimately questions the nature of the myth of Dionysus itself. Viewed as a set of character studies presented through a combination of Suzuki and Western acting styles, the production was successful. Whether or not the production presented a completely coherent story, Kim managed to use the style to define characters sharply. She has not merely appropriated Suzuki's technique to jar the audience. According to Dr. Kim, performers of Japanese Noh drama believe that the actor 'becomes a god' during performance. And this, the production achieved.
Floraine Kay is a graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook.