A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, WSC Avant Bard’s spring rep of Euripides’s The Bacchae and Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of the Crime deliver a sense of epic, musically oriented storytelling from two equally interesting angles. For those hungry to be challenged, it’s a modest but stimulating compare and contrast you’ll find nowhere else in the city.
An ancient Greek tragedy set in Thebes and its surrounding bucolic hills, The Bacchae is a tale of divine revenge. Born of a mortal woman and the god Zeus, the young god Dionysus is outraged at the Theban royal family’s refusal to accept his heritage. When, in retaliation, he bewitches the women of Thebes, the new King Pentheus swears to rout him. Despite his determination, Pentheus also falls under Dionysus’s influence, accepting his offer to observe The Bacchae while disguised as a woman. In true Greek fashion, things go horribly wrong and the royal house of Thebes self-destructs and the gods are finally sated.
(Photo by Kristina Sherk)
Carried by the original music of Mariano Vales, whose rustic acousticals and simple but effective drumming are sometimes wistful sometimes sensually vibrant, this is an intimate production, a place for language and emotion versus spectacle. And without doubt, thanks in large part to director Steven Scott Mazzola’s earthy approach, you will detect the echoes of 1970s experimental theater — earnest, thoughtful, and ever-so-occasionally amusing.
Still, as per a more ancient tradition, the Chorus remains the integral narrator and general commentator and given a central physical place in this production, they offer a strong visual and aural glue to the proceedings. Sweetly cohesive, with some excellent voices (indeed a CD of the music is available for sale or download), standouts include Jase Parker singing and moving with fluidity and Heather Haney offering strong vocals and an engaging physical presence. But for the edgy dimension and color that make Avant Bard unique, a nicely feverish Kari Ginsburg and coolly mysterious Mundy Spears deliver the goods. Both possess rich, textured voices that emerge effectively from the group song.
Though Jeremy Pace’s Dionysus is perhaps incongruently Dupont Circle versus godly, his fey yet volatile way nevertheless suggests an interesting androgynous super-nature. As the self-righteous King Pentheus, Elliot Kashner delivers a convincingly angry energy, but does not quite feel the language or his transitions. In the role of Agave, his ill-fated mother, MiRan Powell brings a satisfying intensity to her deluded and later horrified woman, though at times she is slightly muffled. Hitting it out of the park is a transcendent Frank Britton who in a single herdsman’s monologue brings a fluency and emotional authenticity that sets the production alight.
Knocking forward 2,400 years, Tooth of the Crime is also about a fall, but this time of a rock legend, not a Theban king. Set in suggestions of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Shepard envisions a world in which unseen Keepers decide who, among rival music performers, will reign. It’s a battle of old versus new, genre versus genre in a language that Shepard concocted from all manner of motor, music and street slang. How such a world would ever evolve…. Well, you just have to roll with Shepard’s early existential leanings. It’s all about the essence here and, thanks to the work of T. Bone Burnett, the music.
Matters begin and end in the “kingdom” of Hoss, an aging king of blues-based rock, as he angsts over his urge to ride out into the desert amid ominous astrological readings and rumors of rivals eager to topple him from the charts. Though his band and back-up singer/manager Becky seem loyal, true to reality, there is a pervasive sense that everyone is out for No.1. The tension finally breaks when Crow, an outsider to the Keeper’s system, breeches Hoss’s kingdom and challenges him to a duel to the musical death.
Without doubt a play that could produce nothing but unintended comedy in the wrong hands, director Kathleen Akerley dispels any silliness by mining the darkness here – both from her actors and with Jessica Moretti’s cleverly desolate sets. Though not quite as resonant as the role demands, John Tweel brings a credibly stern charisma to his Hoss and some nice shades of self-doubt. Despite a hokey costume, Jennifer J. Hopkins is convincingly savvy even if Shepard denied his only female character anything of substance. Excellent supporting moments also come from Vince Eisenson as Hoss’s drummer-cum-doctor Doc, hailing from another century, and a scene-stealing Cyle Durkee as Ruido Ran, who both wonders at and toys with Hoss’s cosmic needs. Most memorable of all is the impossibly young-but-self-possessed Tom Carman who, looking like a Gary Neuman knock-off, carries off both the written and sung with mesmerizing edge and credibility. Despite some over-choreographed bobbing and weaving, it is a seriously interesting and compelling performance.