Play for the ages: Premiere of Mainstage play “Bacchai”
A party thrown by an ancient Grecian god isn’t that different from a typical college rager. There’s drinking, dancing and plenty of sex. Only at the end of the night, there isn’t usually blood and gore.
This is what Pentheus, the king of Thebes, faces for refusing to worship the god Dionysus in Euripide’s tragedy, “The Bacchai,” the department of theatre arts’ final Mainstage production of the semester.
When the royal family begins to deny Dionysus’ validity as a deity, the god returns to his birth city to re-establish his dominance, according to senior theatre major Eric Poch, who plays Dionysus.
“In the world of the gods, a god is only as powerful as the people who believe in him,” Poch said. “If the king of Thebes outlaws worship in the city where he was born … it’s not good for business.”
Dionysus possesses Pentheus’ mother, Agaue, along with the entire town, excluding the king.
“They’re very powerful, in the way they can grasp us,” sophomore Shannon Graham, who portrays Agaue, said. “We follow the voice of Dionysus, wherever he may be.”
To act as possessed beings without restraint, the play’s large cast had to work with a choreographer to explore their emotional limits.
“This is a piece that does require a lot of risk on the actor’s part,” Ryan Clark, the play’s director and an adjunct professor in the department of theatre arts, said. “They really go to this sort of rapture kind of place.”
Though the play was written and first performed around 400 BCE, Clark said he wanted to make “The Bacchai” accessible to a college audience. The world of “The Bacchai” is more like a dance club than the Parthenon.
“I think everyone, hopefully, can relate to being intoxicated—in a good way, not a drunken way—and having an out-of-body experience on the dance floor,” Clark said. “That’s the power Dionysus has.”
Poch described his character as a force that fights against inhibition.
“He’s that part of you that when you’re sitting in the library wants to start screaming. The part of you that most people suppress,” Poch said.
However the senior said he acts subdued on stage because a god would have no need to flaunt his power.
“You’re a god, you can do whatever you want,” Poch said. “It was really about building up that sense of potential. It’s like the energy you talk about in physics: Any moment it could explode, but it doesn’t.”
Throughout the play, the god works to persuade the stubborn king to accept Dionysus’ divinity without taking control of his mind or body.
Poch plays a god, but identifies as an atheist. But the underlying truth of “The Bacchai,” is relatable beyond religion, Poch said.
“There’s a part of every single one of us that’s visceral,” Poch said. “If we don’t give into it, it’s denying an essential part of being human.”