Prospect Theater's ingenious, energetic production of The Rockae is another outing for the company's stalwart composer-lyricist, Peter Mills. Based on The Bacchae, The Rockae follows Euripides's original closely but adds its own spin. As you might guess from the title, Mills has chosen the rock idiom for his show. Broadway purists may object—and there are times, especially early on, when the vocal screeching and loudness means straining to understand the lyrics. But on the whole, Cara Reichel's superbly directed production works very well indeed, and the melodies are varied and pleasing.
To refresh your myth memory, know thee that the god Dionysus is outside Thebes, having traveled from "Eastern lands" to gather more converts to his cult. His mother was Theban: Semele, the granddaughter of Zeus. His father was Zeus. Dionysus's aunts, Agave, Autonoë, and Ino, still live in Thebes, where Agave's son Pentheus has assumed the kingship from his grandfather Cadmus, who has retired and handed over power, as unwisely as did Lear.
A rock band plays upstage as the action unfolds on a simple set. Sarah Pearline's only scenery is a tubular-metal structure with a raised platform that serves as prison and the mountain of Cithaeron, where the bacchantes gather. David Withrow's costumes conjure a louche, erotic world, finding a modern parallel to the bacchanalia in The Rocky Horror Show. He draws on a palette of black, chartreuse, and purple, along with tassels, fringes, lace, and netting. The scene where Pentheus puts the women in chains and they sway and pull on them looks like an after-hours club on the Lower East Side (I'm assuming).
As Dionysus, the god of wine, Michael Cunio is given very little to wear: leather straps crossing a bare, glitter-flecked torso, dangerously low hip-hugging black pants, and, initially, a blond woman's wig. His Dionysus is licentious, confident, sly, homosexual, and just plain fun, particularly matching wits with Mitchell Jarvis's arrogant, immature Pentheus. Jarvis smoothly underplays the struggle between the king's urge to maintain control and his innate curiosity about what the women of his city are up to, and Pentheus's final seduction by Dionysus is perhaps the juiciest scene in Mills and Reichel's witty book (as well as in Euripides).
As Dionysus cunningly baits Pentheus, the latter inches toward inevitable cross-dressing to spy on the women, and finally puts on women's clothes. "You're doing it all wrong!" exclaims Pentheus to the soldier helping him. "On this side my dress falls smoothly to my ankle, but over here it's all crooked."
All the performers seize their chances and run. In a song called "High on Cithaeron," Matt DeAngelis, in the bit part of a herdsman, delivers a tour de force performance describing the rites of the women in Mills's evocative lyrics: "Some buckled snakes around their waists/As they were getting dressed./While others suckled young gazelles/And wolf cubs at their breast." Three women (Jaygee Macapugay, Simone Zamore, and Rashidra Scott) sing as a trio of maenads, while Meghan McGeary's enraptured Agave joins her sisters Autonoë (Laura Beth Wells) and Ino (Victoria Huston-Elem) in another trio.
In a show about revels, dance is crucial, and Marlo Hunter's hyperkinetic choreography draws on the hair-throwing references in the text, giving the maenads head-tossing moments along with frenzied jumps, kicks, and slides. A number called "Abandon" is flavored with East Mediterranean sinuousness, in keeping with the lyric—"The kind of justice that prevails/Will not be weighed on Western scales"—as well as the origin of the cult in the East.
The musical falters only when Euripides does: There's an extended anticlimax involving Agave and Cadmus that's faithful and necessary, but it drags. Still, the talents on display here deserve notice.