Gospel-folk tunes fuel an Appalachian adaptation of The Bacchae.
Damon Kiely’s new play at the House Theatre semi-successfully transfers the events, if not the themes, of Euripides’ Bacchae to 1930s Appalachia, with a charismatic young revival preacher (Andy Lutz) in place of the god Dionysus. The preacher, Deacon, wields a guitar and a grin to spread a vague message of love to counter “the darkness.”
The women who hear his message abandon their jobs at the town mill to join Deacon on the mountainside, to the consternation of mill owner Peter (Chris Mathews), the Pentheus analogue. He sends his mother, Agatha (Sarah Charipar), to talk sense into them, but she instead becomes a fevered celebrant herself.
The production is filled with infectious, original country-gospel songs by Jess McIntosh, played and sung by the chorus of women. But Deacon’s apparently well-meaning motivations differ from Dionysus’ revenge drive in The Bacchae; when he disavows his followers’ gruesome climactic act and denies any power over them, we’re left to wonder just what fueled Agatha and the women’s frenzied fervor. Grant Sabin’s scenic design, with actors on runways above behind and through the audience and a number of rolling staircase units, leads Leslie Buxbaum Danzig’s staging to feel more busy than harmonious.
The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre. By Damon Kiely. Directed by Leslie Buxbaum Danzig. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.