Culture  A Greek tragedy for the university set

TNC’s The Bacchae uses movement to modernize a classic

A couple months ago, my roommate came home and happily told my other housemates and I she’d gotten a part in a play. “It’s called The Bacchae. It’s a Greek tragedy. I’m in the chorus,” she said. Almost a month later, when we asked how it was going, she explained that they hadn’t even opened the scripts yet and had just been practicing their movements. Movement was very important to the director, and the cast had been working on exercises for months just to get it right.

The next week, I was in my room studying when I heard strange sounds coming from the living room. My roommate was sitting on the couch chanting, “Dionyyyysus on mount Olyyyympus labour loooovely called the woooomen….”

“What are you doing?!” I asked. “Is this a seance or something? Should I get some candles and a Ouija board?” “I’m memorizing the script for my play,” she said. “There’s this specific way we’re supposed to say all the lines.”

I couldn’t wait to see how all the eerie chants and movement exercises were going to come together to make a play. I arrived a little late and rushed to a couch beside the door just before the show started. The theatre at the Tuesday Night Café was set up in a circle of assorted chairs and couches with a platform in the middle. Bright lights shone in my face. “Oh no,” I thought. “Could I have accidentally sat on the stage? How embarrassing!”

The show started and a shirtless guy in a loincloth with leaves in his hair leapt out from behind a curtain. It turned out I was on the stage, in a way – but so was everyone else. The performers were meant to act around the audience and move about the room during the play, sometimes on the platform in front of the viewers, sometimes weaving in and out between the chairs.

During the first few minutes of old-fashioned English, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to figure out what was going on, but to my surprise, the story quickly became clear. Basically, Dionysus, the Greek god of partying, had started an all-female cult. The men were obviously angry that their ladies were running off into the woods for mysterious rituals, and rumours spread that the women were doing weird, sexual things that the men didn’t approve of. If someone came to stop the cult, Dionysus would make the women go insane and kill the intruder with their bare hands. The first half of Euripides’ play reads kind of like a feminist piece until, well, tragedy ensues.

The whole play was almost a dance performance; the actors told the story with their bodies as well as their voices. The script is a direct translation of the Greek version, so the body-language was very important in helping the audience understand the plot. The play has no set, a small cast, and few props, so the actors depicted these things through movement as well. The all-female chorus is onstage almost the entire time, and each member plays at least one other character by slightly altering their costumes.

Dan Ruppel, the director, explains that The Bacchae isn’t usually such a physical show, but he used choreography to adapt the show for a modern audience instead of altering the script. The challenge, says Ruppel, is “making the play potent 2,300 years after it was written.”

Even though it’s been a very long time since Euripedes wrote The Bacchae, the show has proven to still be captivating for today’s audience. Watching a 20-century-old play turned out to be way less bizarre than I expected it to be when I first heard my roommate chanting in the living room.

The Bachhae will be shown at 8 p.m., Novmber 19-22 and 26-29 at the Tuesday Night Café (Morrice Hall in the Islamic Studies Building).