When the ancient Greek playwright and epic raconteur Euripides described the bacchanalian excess of the Maenads, Dionysus’ virginal followers, he leaves no doubt that it is an intoxicating affair: “With milk and wine and streams of luscious honey flows the earth, and Syrian incense smokes…” Karaoke Bacchae, Meta-Phys Ed.’s subversive production of the ancient Greek play, The Bacchae, at the New Ohio Theatre, takes intoxication to another dimension. Although supposedly written "in the style of Euripides," the play is set in the singular location of a karaoke bar on the night of the Stanley Cup final, where the avenging wine god Dionysus is to descend on his unfaithful mortal family (who refuse to worship him, understandably), incite them into drunken madness, and and force them to rip each other to pieces. Instead, we have a harmlessly roving rock 'n' roll god attempting to loosen up a strictly sober bartender, rather than your requisite tearing to pieces.
Euripides’ immortalized characters from The Bacchae have their mortal counterparts in director Jesse Freedman’s Karaoke Bacchae: a cruel, godly Dionysus is a glittering, ostentatiously pan-sexual Iggy Pop (neo-boylesque star James Tigger! Ferguson). The agnostically complex King Pentheus is transformed into a particularly uptight bar owner (Tim Craig) and the Maenads, Dionysus’ frenzied followers (Mehdya Fassi Fihri, Sheree Grate, Youn Jung Kim and Sarah Matusek), are perennially tipsy members of a college sorority. Pentheus’ courtly dissidents are Tiresias (Benoit Johnson) and King Cadmus (Don Castro); the former seems to cling to his classical self of a blind prophet, spewing serious monologues while his lordly friend Cadmus has become a lonely, mildly irritating drunk moaning into a microphone.
To call Ferguson’s performance of Iggy Pop as Dionysus overtly sexual would be to grossly understate the lewd, but nonetheless terrific power of said performance. His funnily ceremonious entrances and exits, no doubt taken from his flashy productions on the burlesque stage, take on an appropriately egomaniacal and deified importance. His utterly sober counterpart King Pentheus, played with serious frustration by Craig, chases the glittered-up god to no avail, whacking away at his once-quiet bar with a hockey stick. He tries shooing away Iggy’s Maenads, who are four recent inductees into a sorority. It’s a none-too subtle nod to the chug-happy, partying lifestyle of college Greek societies, but perhaps the only apt modern translation of the wine god’s female cult. At first, the girls are smilingly inappropriate with audience members, reclining and flirting on the laps of front row ticket-holders, but they soon turn into evil-spirited fanatics, screaming shrilly and dancing wildly, in much the same manner their ancient mythical analogues might have worshiped their god.
Scenic designer Michael Minahan has endowed the sports bar with a ping pong table, a massive screen showing the hockey final and the ubiquitous presence of red cups. A bevy of recognizable tunes stream out of loudspeakers, all karaoke favorites: the Grease soundtrack, Alicia Keys, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Clash. Cadmus holds the karaoke mic for most of the production (it is occasionally commandeered by a sorority girl) and pours his sad, drunken interpretation of The Bacchae into it. Tiresias, a barfly under the impression that he is a prophet, recites Euripides’ words over Cadmus’ voice with pointed determination. But the reverberation from the mic is more than slightly distracting, and Castro does little to subtract from the overall atmosphere of confusion.
The plot is almost non-existent; we dimly understand that Iggy Pop is trying to enlist the unsmiling bartender into his staggering, bleary-eyed ranks, that Cadmus is desperate to find a girl, and that those sorority girls are crazy, but the kind of crazy we’d like to hang out with for one night. Freedman’s aim is to give meaning to the madness of the philosophical alcoholic, and take sobriety down a peg with the unintelligible raves of sorority girls slurring their way through karaoke songs. Consequently, much of the play is babbling incoherence, borne out of Freedman’s intent to sober up his audience at the very end. And he delivers, quite astonishingly.
Ferguson steps up as Dionysus, in a shockingly unexpected last scene, revealing his divine self (in more ways than one) and decrying the seriousness with which we arrived at this play. To the ethereal tune of Prince’s "Purple Rain," Iggy Pop says, “You have got to be drunk. Always. That is everything. Just to keep from feeling the hideous weight of Time that’s breaking your back and pushing you down to your knees… you’ve gotta be drunk, non-stop.” These last scenes somewhat redeem the confused melee the audience has witnessed for the past hour and a half, but while it eases our curiosity and pushes our feel-good buttons, it doesn’t seem quite enough to save this rave of a play.
The Meta-Phys Ed. production of Karaoke Bacchae ran from July 23-25 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., #1E between Greenwich and Washington Sts.) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.newohiotheatre.org.