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The chorus in the Stratford Festival’s Bakkhai sing and dance their commentary to the electronica-tinged setting of the translation.

Cylla von Tiedemann

4 out of 4 stars

Written by
Euripides, new version by Anne Carson
Directed by
Jillian Keiley
Mac Fyfe, Gordon S. Miller and Lucy Peacock
Stratford Festival
Stratford, Ont.

Here, at long last, a Stratford Festival production of a classic that goes beyond the merely excellent to the essential.

Bakkhai, a new version of Euripides's tragedy about wine, women and wildness by poet/classicist Anne Carson, features stunning, bold performances by Mac Fyfe, Gordon S. Miller and Lucy Peacock inside a daring, Dionysian dreamworld created by director Jillian Keiley that theatregoers will be talking about for a long, long time.

"I've come to thrill you, Thebes," Dionysos – a.k.a. Bakkhos – tells us at the top. Fyfe, playing him with an eerie ethereality, like an intergalactic intersex rock star, does just that, but he'll eventually provide deeply unsettling chills as well.

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You may know this play as The Bacchae and the god of the grape as Dionysus or Bacchus, but Carson has fresh ideas about spelling – and pretty much everything else in her swaggering, authoritative translation.

Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes (played by Miller as a matter-of-fact middle manager), is disturbed by the fact that the women of his city – including his mother, Agave – have run off to the hills to engage in strange rituals in worship of this Dionysos. "There's a lot of wine involved and creeping off into corners with men," he tells us. "Meanwhile, they call themselves a prayer group! Obviously, it's just sex."

In order to reassert control over the women and their sexuality, Pentheus tries to jail the so-called Bakkhai – and their beloved Bakkhos, too. It doesn't work. As Dionysos warns him: "Man against god – never wins."

Pentheus's real downfall comes when he decides to don women's clothing to spy on the Bakkhai. Miller, who regularly gives wonderful performances as comic sidekicks at Stratford, is exquisite here, depicting the war between the pleasure and panic Pentheus feels within himself as he slips into a dress. Carson nods at another Canadian poet, Margaret Atwood, when she has the rigid ruler express his utmost fear about this plan: "Most important: These women must not laugh at me."

Pentheus has an idea – many men have this idea – that he can somehow see women without being seen by them. His Achilles heel, if you'll pardon the myth muddling, is that he believes the male gaze is reality.

Keiley's production is an attempt to demolish that idea, top to bottom, presenting this classic tragedy resolutely through the female gaze. And, yes, though a sign outside the theatre lets timid theatregoers know there will be "explicit scenes of eroticism," another could be added, with the warning: "There will be laughing at men."

In one striking scene, Pentheus tries to masturbate to Internet pornography in private – little knowing that we, the audience, are watching him fumbling around in his pants while the threesome on his screen is blurred. As a man, I certainly found it one of the more triggering things I've ever seen on a stage. (I've been having nightmares about it.)

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From its beginnings, the Stratford Festival has been famous for the thrust stage in its Festival Theatre – with all sorts of mystical properties applied to this phallic platform's ability to allow Shakespeare to penetrate an audience on a deeper level. The Tom Patterson Theatre, where Bakkhai is being staged, was once a thrust, too, but was recently converted into an in-the-round configuration. For this show, designer Shawn Kerwin has made literal this yonic transformation – turning the stage into a giant red vagina, an elevated labia forming an off-centre platform, a spear-like thistle where a clitoris might be. As a joke about theatre history, it's a good one; as a staging area, it proves versatile.

Bakkhai's chorus is comprised of seven women – one for each of the gates of the ancient city of Thebes. These are the followers of Dionysos, each of them carrying one of those spears with a clitoral connotation. They sing and dance their commentary on the action to great electronica-tinged rock settings by Veda Hille and they writhe, kiss and orgasm – seemingly for themselves rather than any spectators.

Peacock's Agave makes an appearance with this liberated chorus early on – ecstatic, shedding her high heels on the way to the hills. Later, she'll cruelly have to return to reality and Spanx.

Agave's big scenes come at the end – and, for those of you not versed in your Euripides: spoiler alert. She has, in her bacchanalian revelries, torn her son limb from limb – and has returned to Thebes carrying his head as a prize, thinking it is that of a lion.

In a truly terrible image, Keiley has Peacock transport the head under her dress and stroke it like a pregnant belly – her son ending where he began.

Try to imagine the moment when Agave realizes the truth. Try to imagine an actress performing that. Peacock pulls it off.

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Dionysos has punished Agave and her family for spreading a rumour that he is not a god – the whole play is a kind of revenger's tragedy. But what does this mad vision of Euripides mean to us today? What's greatest about Carson's translation and Keiley's production is that it does not seem to be saying any one thing. It seduces you with one side of humanity, then disturbs you with it. What can you say? Except that it's foolish to imagine you can stamp the Dionysian out.

Bakkhai ( continues to Sept. 23.

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