Groping Greatness

Nudity, cannibalism, intoxication, fellatio, dismemberment, and a howling scream of protest against the forces of governmental control: in many ways, just an ordinary evening of theatre-going in Austin. In other respects, however, the Rude Mechanicals’ recreation of the Performance Group’s Dionysus in ’69 is anything but ordinary. A seminal work of 20th-century theater, Dionysus in ’69 — originally staged in a Greenwich Village garage in 1968 — transplants Euripides’ Bacchae to a gender-bending polis that’s half-Athens, half-Woodstock, and half-naked; as an investigation of the divide between the calm ego of Apollo and the chaotic id of Dionysus, the play takes Nietzsche more seriously than anybody since, well, Nietzsche.

The split-screen film version — by a young Brian De Palma — is something of a cult item, one that managed to capture for posterity a snapshot of a famously fluid production. The Rude Mechs’ decision to recreate the staging based on the film thus dovetails with similar experiments in contemporary performance, most notably the Wooster Group’s recent stage production of Richard Burton’s filmed Hamlet. For those of us who mostly know Dionysus in ’69 through cinema, the Rude Mechs’ environmental staging is absolutely revelatory: it allows the eye (and hand and pelvis) to roam where the camera never could (or perhaps should…).

Dionysus in ’69 takes its cue — and about half of its text — from William Arrowsmith’s sturdy translation of the Euripidean original, which follows the misadventures of Theban King Pentheus when polyamorous and oversexed Dionysus blows `sic` through town. Any leader whose name means “Man of Sorrow” is headed for (at best) an awkward evening of Greek theater, and Pentheus is no exception: as Dionysus whips his cheering Bacchants into a lather, Pentheus confronts a city-state run amok with both religious devotion and unbridled sensuality. Blood flows as freely as wine.

The original production, helmed by theater guru Richard Schechner, famously shattered the wall between actors and spectators by including the audience in nearly every aspect of the production, from ecstatic gyrations during Dionysus’ musical entrance to the Bacchants’ strangely soothing grope-in, a sort of Dionysiac version of Twister. For the record, I loathe audience participation and consider “interactive theater experiences” such as Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding to be just one horseman shy of the Apocalypse. But when invited to The Caress — by a very persuasive devoté of the big D — there was nothing to do but succumb to peer pressure and join the performance grope.

To my surprise—and trust me, I’m the kind of guy who shreds Hallmark cards for kicks — The Caress was the highlight of my evening. There I lay: just another body in a pile, a spectator-turned-spectacle (like Pentheus himself), with my shirt lifted up and my navel nuzzled by a somewhat unshaven and therefore tickling male Bacchant. As the Caress continued, hands groped my chest, my hair, my chest hair, my thighs, and in one particularly alarming moment, my iPhone, which I was convinced was going to announce to Thebes that I had fourteen emails and one voice message. As Richard Schechner noted in a talkback after Saturday’s performance, this was the first Caress in which he himself had ever participated; in a sense, then, I’ve been (meta) groped by Richard Schechner, a religious distinction I shall carry with me to the grave.

Meta-groping and meta-theatricality are, of course, the hallmarks of the evening: With an eye to the film, co-directors Madge Darlington and Shawn Sides have cast the Rude Mechanicals not as Greek characters per se, but as Performance Group actors-playing-Greek-characters. For instance, Josh Meyer plays Bill Shephard playing Pentheus, and Thomas Graves plays William Finley playing Dionysus. It’s wheels-within-wheels, and when it works, it works: Graves, in particular, uncannily channels the looks and tics of Finley’s Dionysus: insouciant, quick-witted, imperious, alpha-male. Meyer’s Pentheus, however, doesn’t much match Shephard’s physical presence: whereas Shephard was taut as a coil — all energy, no outlet — Meyer’s willowy, effete Pentheus seems (paradoxically) more androgynous than Dionysus himself. It’s not an uninteresting choice — what’s The Bacchae for, if not to interrogate constructions of gender? — but it’s further from the movie than the conceit of the evening indicates. Still, it’s a treat to see all the set pieces from the film — such as the famous introductory “Birth Ritual” — in living color. It’s like stepping into Oz.

I could elaborate further about all of the wonderful aspects of the evening, but column space, like Pentheus’ life, is short. If you’ve any interest at all in performance studies, leap into your chariot and go. •


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