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The Bacchae: Lisa Anne Ross tackles gender fluidity and moral extremes

Don’t mess with the gods: advice that is heeded by humans in the latest Theatre St. Thomas production. Enter demi-god Dionysus, son of Zeus, self-indulgent and self-assured as he towers over his cult of sexually spell-bound followers who huff and puff in ecstasy with his every move. Now, enter Pentheus, king of Thebes – the city that Dionysus craves revenge over for disbelieving him as a god. Its ruler is the only one who dares to look Dionysus in the eye without being overcome with the erotic infection the demi-god has begun to spread across the land. Soon, the king will find out that his raging testosterone and prison chains hold no power over the unleashed Dionysian powers.

The Euripides tragic play is over 2400 years old, but feels revived and oddly fit for 2016 with director Lisa Anne Ross’ take on it. Even with the long, complex Grecian dialogues the actors and actresses spit out effortlessly, the audience is pulled in by more than just the story.

Dionysus, portrayed by the uncomfortably captivating Alex Rioux, walks into the first scene from behind the disarrayed walls of the Black Box Theatre. He is dressed in a skin-tight black garment and a lacy black top, embellished with a black sparkly corset, matching elbow-length gloves, Mary Jane-style platform heels, and devil horns. He summons his animalistic followers, the Bacchae, into a dance routine to M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” – something that leaves the audiences wondering how it made its way out of the strip club and into STU’s campus. We are not sure what or who he is, but we cannot look away.

The Bacchae constantly grunt, moan, and sway their hips rousingly at the sight and sound of their beloved Dionysus. Clad in lace, chains, fur and lipstick – though not much else – they look like they’re on their way to a burlesque show or a gothic-themed rave. They murder to the sounds of remixed-Fleetwood Mac and perform rituals to “The Sound of Music.” The group lures in outsiders via sexual summoning and sing and dance in ways that are reminiscent of a tribal cult. They are bad but, for whatever reason, no one can overcome them.

Though the Bacchic frenzy and exploration of movement can be distracting, it doesn’t take away from the messages the story offers. Obvious tones of gender fluidity and homoeroticism reveal themselves. The relationship of religion and sex – and how they overpower or seduce in similar ways – is out in the open for all to see. The riff between Dionysus and Pentheus demonstrates law and order, but also extremes of morals and the ambiguity of madness. The Euripides-meets-Lady-Gaga play suggests that too much madness and excess cause chaos, but not accepting it or maintaining moderation is just as bad. Basically, they’re trying to tell us that extremism of any kind never leads to any good – something that is just as relevant today as it was 2400 years ago.

The Bacchae is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those who are uncomfortable being made to feel uncomfortable. But it is for those who enjoy distorted views of reality and answers to questions they don’t want to ask.

Originally written for a class at St. Thomas University.

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