Phenomenal Animals’s ‘The Bacchae,’ at Walnut Street Theatre Studio Five

Filthy minds, female power

The Phenomenal Animals’s production of Euripides’s The Bacchae: A Ritual Blood Sacrifice at Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5 is a reminder of how much talent there is in this town that doesn’t always make it to Philly’s mainstages. It also raises some questions about what classic works are worth reviving, with or without reimagining the originals.

The Bacchae's women gone wild. (Photo by Ted Apostolacus)

There has been some discussion lately in these pages about Reject Theatre Project’s SHREW — an exploration of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in these feminist times — and whether we can ever overcome the misogyny of the original. At the same time NYC’s Shakespeare in the Park is offering Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Shakespeare’s original.

Women of the ancient world

The Bacchae offers its own set of problematic depictions of women. Yes, it might be saying something about how women were regarded at the time, but in this media-savvy world, we recognize that showing people acting badly is what people remember and not the subtext beneath the actions. The women in this play act very badly indeed.

“When women drink wine, there’s no telling where their filthy minds will go,” says one of the characters, and unfortunately their drunken stupor leads to all sorts of lewd and violent acts, some of which we see and some we only hear about.

In the play, Dionysus (Kate Sparacio) comes to Thebes to punish those who don’t believe he is a god and uses his women supporters, the Bacchae, to do his dirty work. This production adheres closely to the original, surprisingly so for such an offbeat group, and offers subtext on many levels. One can find hints of the Christ story, as well as discussions about breastfeeding in public, drag, LGBTQ issues, women’s sexuality, and religious oppression and repression. It presents all this in a fast-paced interactive format that engages audience participation. What it doesn’t do as well is offer a way to understand the play in modern terms, although it’s easy enough to draw parallels to our current political climate.

Thebes: Where it's at

Robert C. Thompson’s direction is wide ranging, veering from tragedy to comedy and back again. Emily Dale White shines as Tiresias, switching easily between old man and frenzied female with adroit comic timing. Taylor Cawley’s Cadmus puts on a certain gravity along with the shawl that lets us know she is in character, and Grant Bolopue as Pentheus, the production’s lone male, has a stern seriousness that suits the part. Devin Arroyo’s Agave, the woman who kills her own son, draws us in with deep pathos.

The stage, designed by Katie Gaffney, is set with a large poster advertising Thebes, and a scarecrow-like image of Dionysus draped with gold cloth and an elaborate headdress. A small stepladder and buckets of tools provide the actors with the necessary props.

Productions like this one come and go quickly. Limited production budgets and performers who do all things at the same time — Sparacio switches from ticket-taker to performer as soon as the play begins — mean that at times the production can vary from professional to amateur. It’s an ambitious project for these young actors, who will next tackle Tales of the Grotesque and Mysterious: The Works of Edgar Allan Poe in September’s FringeArts Festival. 

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