The Bacchae: Torn to Pieces

Directed by: Susan Fenichell
Costume and Scenic Design by: David Zinn
Lighting Design by: Mary Louise Geiger
Original Music by: David Russell
With: Ellen McLaughlin*, Amy Lee Maguire,
Matt Pepper*, David Russell and Paul Savas
*Member of AEA - Equity Approved Showcase

Performance Schedule:
October 18th - November 4th
Thursday - Sunday 8:00pm
Sunday Matinee 2:30pm
First Floor Theatre

Curtain Up Review

La MaMa presents Hopeful Monsters in "The Bacchae: Torn to Pieces," a contemporary retelling of Euripides' classic tale, October 18 to November 4. This adaptation is set in the aftermath of the horrifying incidents of Euripides' tale, when three citizens are brought before a tribunal to explain what happened to their city, now rocked to its core. During the investigation, witnesses are suddenly possessed by Euripides' characters, bringing the classic story to life. The production has become unexpectedly timely in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, as parallels between ancient Thebes, Oklahoma City and New York are inescapable. Susan Fenichell directs.

This adaptation was celebrated in earlier productions in Seattle and Austin. It has been updated and substantially re-cast for its New York premiere at La MaMa and now includes noted playwright/actress Ellen McLaughlin as Agave.

Euripides' "The Bacchae" is set in ancient Thebes during the reign of Pentheus and shows the city caught up in hysterical orgies to honor Dionysus. Pentheus attempts, in the name of reason, to combat the frenzy that has overtaken his city. Between him and the frenzied mob are the elderly "moderates," Tiresius and Cadmus, who pursue a cautious path, being wiser than Pentheus yet contemptuous of the rites of the worshippers. Dared by Dionysus to witness their rites, Pentheus is seized and killed by a group of ecstatically ferocious women, including his own mother, Agave. "The Bacchae" has been staggeringly relevant for 2500 years, with its theme that a world built on extreme reason is as doomed as one built on extreme passion. The notion achieves special resonance in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, when reason struggles--and fails--to absorb both the shock of the event and the irrationality and passion of terrorism.

In its plays, Hopeful Monsters grafts snippets of non-theatrical sources (poems, novels, essays, eyewitness accounts, manifestos, etc.) into the "solid spine" of theatrical classics in order to "crowd an empty space with the willful din of layers of meanings and possibility." The previous version of "The Bacchae: Torn to Pieces" interwove Euripides' text with testimonies from the Oklahoma City bombing case (together with excerpts of novels, poems, Manson Trial Transcripts and "Robert's Rules of Order," among others.) You can be sure that material drawn from public utterances regarding the World Trade Center/Pentagon disaster will find its way into the LaMaMa version. As in all Hopeful Monsters productions, there will be a soundscore, played live by composer David Russell, weaving a hypnotic layer of sound into the multi-layered text.

The Hopeful Monsters ensemble was formed in 1995, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, when Susan Fenichell was asked to direct "The Bacchae" for a theatre festival in Seattle. The resulting play, "The Bacchae: Torn to Pieces, was produced by Maximilian Bocek for Seattle Theatre Project at Pilgrim Center for the Arts. It was subsequently produced by Hopeful Monsters and Fontera@Hyde Park Theatre in Austin, Texas in 1996 with the same cast and production team. "The Bacchae: Torn to Pieces" received the Best Drama Production of the Year Award (Fringe) from the Seattle Times in 1995 and Best Drama and Best Director awards from the Austin Circle of Critics in 1996. The company also created an adaptation of "Prometheus Bound," titled "Approach to the New World," for the Speakeasy Cafe, Seattle, in 1996. The play contained pieces about the Titanic (before the movie came out), the atom bomb and the Unibomber's letter to the New York Times, among others. At the time, the Speakeasy Cafe was the country's first big Internet Cafe. (It burned down a month ago.)

Susan Fenichell, Founding Artistic Director of Hopeful Monsters, most recently directed the New York premiere of "The Dead Eye Boy" for MCC, starring Lili Taylor, which received glowing national reviews and two Drama Desk nominations. She is former Associate Artistic Director of Intiman Theatre in Seattle and has directed nationally at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The National Playwrights Conference/O'Neill Center, Denver Center Theater Company, The Empty Space Theater, New Harmony Project, New Jersey Playwrights Theater and University of Texas, among others. Internationally, she has directed at the Edinburgh Festival and the Ilkholm Theatre(Tashkent). She has served on the faculties of University of Washington, University of Texas, National Theater Conservatory and Williamstown Theatre Festival. She has received a TCG grant and two awards from the Princess Grace Foundation and has been an on-site evaluator for the NEA since 1990.

Ellen McLaughlin (Agave) is an actress/playwright who has won her share of awards and grants, but many remember her best as that wonderful Angel who descended from the flies to bring a message to a dying AIDS victim in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." Her play "Tongue of a Bird," a "poetic and visionary drama" (Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire), received critical acclaim at the Public Theater in 1999, but not before it had already been canonized by productions at London's Almeida Theatre and Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Her other plays include "Iphigenia and Other Daughters" (1995).

"The Bacchae: Torn To Pieces" is conceived by Susan Fenichell and David Zinn and directed by Susan Fenichell. Costume and scenic design are by David Zinn, lighting design is by Mary Louise Geiger. Original music is composed and performed by David Russell. The ensemble includes Ellen McLaughlin, Amy Lee Maguire, Matt Pepper, Paul Savas and David Russell.

- October 18th to November 4th, First Floor Theater -

Curtain Up Review
October 21, 2001
By Elyse Sommer

In the last year of his life Euripides, disillusioned by Athens' conduct of the Peloponnesian War, lived in exile at the court of King Archelaus of Macedonea. It was at this time that he probably saw some of the frenzied rites of worship of Dionysus, the god of ecstasy which gave him further cause for brooding over the state of human nature. Since he was a playwright, these musingis led to his The Bacchae which was produced posthumously in Athens. It became his most frequently revived play. No wonder! It's filled with beautiful poetry and well-developed characters. Its gripping conflict between powerful opposing forces -- a God with a frenzied following and a repressive puritan king -- have found parallels throughout history to keep it all too relevant.

The one-act tragedy is set in ancient Thebes whose King Pentheus (his very name, coming as it does from the Greek word penthos, meaning sorrow) is determined, to squelch the frenzied followers of Dionysus in the name of reason. When he allows himself to be lured by Dionysus to witness the rites of worship of his overheated followers, the king ends up being literally torn to pieces by a mob of frenzied women, his mother Agave among them.

This mystical drama with its beautiful language and strong themes is perfectly suited to the mission of the Hopeful Monsters group -- the interweaving of classical theatrical texts with relevant other material from poems, novels, essays and eyewitness accounts. When they first presented their adaptation in Seattle in 1995, the Oklahoma bombing gave an all too timely aura to the horrible effects of both reason and vengeance gone awry. The company's production now at La Mama has become even more up to date in the light of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. The back of the stage has been turned into a blackboard on which crayoned phrases summarize the various incidents that figure in the drama, the last being "sifting through the rubble."

Director Susan Fenichell and David Zinn have framed Euripides' tale into a tribunal before which three citizens of Thebes are brought to bear witness to the bloody events that recently took place. As the examiner (Amylee Maguire) sits at a desk at one side of the stage, the three witnesses in modern dress (Eileen McLaughlin, Matthew Pepper and Paul Savas) take their seats at a long table at the rear.

One by one, the witnesses metamorphose into the characters whose actions they describe. The actors are remarkable in their shifts from witnesses to dramatic personae. The scene when Dionysus (Paul Savas) dresses the King (Matthew Pepper) in a white gown in preparation for taking him to the rites of his followers in the hills is mesmerizing. Agave's (Ellen McLaughlin) horrified realization that the box and black plastic bag before her contain the bloody remains of her son is almost too painful to watch in the light of recent events.

As fine as the actors are, the most impressive part of this Bacchae is the perfectly integrated and atmospheric music composed and performed by David Russell. He is a veritable one-man band playing a guitar, piano and a variety of unusual other instruments. Russell is on stage all the time, accompanying the actors but never drowning them out. His contribution to this production is invaluable.

With Metamorphoses at Second Stage, Sophocles at the Cocteau and Iphigeneia at Aulis coming to the Pearl Theater, the ancient classics are indeed alive and well in New York. The Bacchae: Torn to Pieces is not an easy-and-fun adaptation, but if you like your classics with an edgy modern touch, catch it before its very brief run ends.

2002 page