Here we go again.
So much of the theater is about repetition. In this way it reflects the cycles of life: seasons, days, the functions of the body and mind. Repetition brings our attention to the passage of time, what remains, what changes. Often repetition can drive us crazy, but it seems that the trick is to surf ON the waves that break, over and over onto the shore instead of being engulfed IN them.
SITI Company finds ourselves back at the Getty Villa this week. Although our company for the Bacchae includes some for whom the Villa is new, for many of us, this is a pleasant return to a place that we are privileged to find familiar and welcoming. The staff is so welcoming. The beautiful architecture takes on the feeling of home. The collection has been re-arranged which only reminds us that we had built up a familiarity with how it had been exhibited. Some of the rooms feel like dad and mom rearranged the furniture in our house while we were at college. Didn’t that chair used to be upstairs…?
And so we settle into a new daily routine, that is also old.
SITI Company finds ourselves back in the thick of a Greek Tragedy. And this is a tough one. As familiar as the ground is, it is littered with the corpses of those who have died on this mountain. Everyone keeps saying that the Bacchae is a kind of Everest. Part of what is resonant about that image is that at the higher altitudes of the Himalayas, bodies do not decompose, and have sometimes been used as signposts to guide others up the mountain.
Early in the week we talked about what we want from this process and it was deeply heartening to hear so many of us say that we wanted this process to be fun. To enjoy the work. This is important. And it doesn’t happen by accident. We have to do it. We have to have fun. But there is no denying that there is a palpable sense of fear just under the surface in our work, which occasionally breaks through. This is different than the feeling we have when working on something like a bobrauschenbergamerica where we have NO IDEA what it’s going to turn out to be. In the case of the Bacchae most of us have seen and many of us have worked on bad productions of it. We know how far off the rails this thing can fly. We know what that looks like. It is not an exercise of the imagination. We can feel it in our bodies.
My own relationship with this play traces back to my time as a member of the Suzuki Company Of Toga; About three years after I joined SCOT, the lead actor and matriarch, Kayoko Shiraishi left the company. She was so central to so much of the work of the company at that time that her departure caused us to go through a process that was like a triage to see what of our existing repertory we could still do. The decision, years earlier, to create an all male adaptation of King Lear, meant that we had a show that was unaffected, but the Greek trilogy of Trojan Woman, Bacchae and Clytemnestra that was the backbone of the company’s touring was all built around Shiraishi. Of those three, it was decided that Bacchae was the one that was most open to being rebuilt. The reasons for this related to the fact that it had a history of being worked on in many different configurations and formats including the very early work done on it with American actors at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
So for the next couple of years, I was Suzuki’s assistant as we began a wild process of deconstructing and arranging and re-arranging this play. Suzuki was never interested in the entire play, so the focus was around the scenes that were kind of set-pieces; The dialogues between Penthius and Dionysus, the rather spectacular killing of Penthius, and the Agave scenes. These were rounded out by some choral pieces with the two choruses the production featured.
Greek tradition tells us that in ancient times, the actor that played Penthius, after exiting to spy on the Bacchants, would re-enter, as his mother Agave, holding the Penthius mask as the severed head. But in SCOT’s production Shiraishi had been playing the double roles of Dionysus and Agave. These were the roles that needed to be recast. One of the two choruses, was a chorus of men, dressed as priests, faithful to Dionysus, so it was a simple matter for one of them to step out and speak the part of Dionysus when he is interacting with Penthius as “the stranger.” However Suzuki didn’t feel that anyone in the company was up to replacing Shiraishi as Agave. So we went through a rolodex of Japanese celebrities. Settling for a time on Ankoku Butoh star Yoko Ashikawa.
We also tried all kinds of different arrangements and re-orderings of the scenes. At one point we got deeply into playing with the chronology by starting with the Agave scene etc. I loved this work. It was deeply experimental and explorative, but we never really found a form for the play that really clicked. Although we did tour The Bacchae fairly extensively the production was eventually completely reconceived into a new production called Dionysus which opened the new theater at Mito and along with Ivanov and Macbeth became the first of a trilogy of new works we made there.
There is something refreshing about returning to this play now, many years later, in its more complete form, with messengers and choral odes. The richness and complexity of the play itself is deeply resonant now. But it is hard for me not to hear these scenes and not be transported back to the 1990’s in the mountains of Toyama.
We have spend the bulk of this week at the table, going through the play, line by line. Looking for bits that we can sand down or trim. Sentences we can re-align. And most importantly, with the help of our amazing dramaturge Prof. Helene Foley, reaching deep into the misty past, to try and touch what we can find of Euripides’ vision. This is important because we are working with the audacious assertion that some 2400 years ago, this playwright in Macedonia, near the end of his life, wrote a play that has something important to contribute to us in our situation right now.
Like a messenger from a far-off place, this text has something to say. It would behove us to listen.
This is new! But we’ve been here before.
Here we go again!