Cross-dressing kills in The Bacchae

In the Public Theater‘s production of Twelfth Night for Shakespeare in the Park, cross-dressing gets Viola many things but death isn’t among them. For Pentheus (Anthony Mackie), the unlucky King of Thebes in The Bacchae, donning a dress, heels and a wig gets him torn apart, limb from limb, by his own mother who then saunters about the stage with his bloody head. It’s a bit of a change from the happy-go-lucky ending of Twelfth Night, but then again this is Greek tragedy. 

There’s something very exciting about seeing a play that first premiered in 405 BC. The writing itself is pretty straightforward stuff, but in the hands of director Joanne Akalaitis with an original score by Philip Glass, it takes on a renewed importance. Here’s the breakdown: Dionysus (Tony-award winner Jonathan Groff) god of wine and all things lustful, is upset because his family doesn’t believe he’s a son of Zeus. This makes him very angry, and an angry god is never a good thing. In his quest for  vengeance he possesses a bunch of women, his groupies the Bacchantes, and uses them to ruin his family and banish them from Thebes. Euripedes has his characters state their actions and intentions plainly. Each has a moment in which they face the audience and baldly state something along the lines of, I am mad because of X and here is what I’m going to do about it. But the production is so expertly executed that the language never feels as naked as it looks on the page. Mostly this is due to Phillip Glass’ incredible music, which includes a traditional 12-person chorus that remains onstage the whole time, guiding us through. However, once Pentheus’ mother rushes around with her son’s decapitated head, we no longer need narration. And when her blistering scream cuts through the hot and sweaty night air you do, as Akalaitis intended, feel nauseous and disturbed.

There are a lot of different ways to interpret this play: a government shouldn’t tell people what to worship (or the gods will wreak havoc), or don’t be a stubborn misbeliever (or the gods will wreak havoc) or don’t be so easily possessed (or the gods will wreak havoc). But whatever mere mortals draw from the experience, it’s clear the gods always have their way.