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LOUISIANA BACCHAE, the reason we go to live theater

THE BASICS:  LOUISIANA BACCHAE, wonderfully adapted from the Greek tragedy of Euripides (and also directed) by Robert Waterhouse, is presented by Red Thread Theatre, and stars Christian Brandjes, Eileen Dugan, Greg Howze, Geoff Pictor, and Harold White, with dancers and musicians and a 1965 Chevy pickup named “Bacchae.” It runs through October 8, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Jim Bush Studios, 44 17th Street (near Connecticut Street at Richmond Avenue). Call (716) 445-4653 or visit Wine and soda available. A little over 90 minutes with no intermission. There is a gunshot in the final scene. No one under the age of 18 will be admitted.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Dionysus (also known as Zagreus and also Bacchus) was the Greek god of theater, masks, wine, and fertility who had a cult following of women (the Bacchae), one of whom was the mother of a skeptical king for whom things went badly in the end. In this update we also witness the classic struggle between head versus heart, ego versus id, rigidity versus acceptance, law versus laissez-faire, all set in a modern day backwater of Louisiana, where, despite the Cajun motto “Laissez les bon temps rouler” repressive forces still prevail. The sheriff’s elderly mother, in poor health, is ultimately seduced by Dionysus into joining a cult of women who dance near the swamp at night, where she regains her youthful essence. The deputy tries to explain what is happening but the sheriff will hear none of it and after arresting Dionysus, when the sheriff goes to “rescue” his mother, she and the other Bacchantes will have none of his disbelief.

Greg Howze "interacting" with a Bacchante
Greg Howze “interacting” with a Bacchante

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Just as the spell of Dionysus brought “Ma” back her youth in the play, I was transported back to my college days, when drama was experimental, and edgy, and exciting. I loved it. Sometimes when I’m at a play or musical, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been just as good or even better to see the drama as a movie or television show. And, indeed, many plays have been produced as such. So why go to live theater? Go see LOUISIANA BACCHAE and you’ll have your answer.

Greg Howze delivering his final speech from the back of the 1965 Chevy pickup truck with a Louisiana plate that reads "BACCHAE".
Greg Howze delivering his final speech from the back of the 1965 Chevy pickup truck with a Louisiana plate that reads “BACCHAE”.

When first approaching the theater, you could hear the wailing of Tom Makar’s electric blues guitar. Makar is the master of pre-performance music and for other venues chooses just the “right” combination of CDs to set up the show. Here it was pretty cool to have the man behind the curtain there on stage making the music happen live. Regular readers know that, for me, nothing beats live musicians playing real instruments. Tom Makar was joined by Marquell Almond, percussionist.

The theater is a reclaimed old stable and when you walk in you get the feeling that you’re in for something different.

The theater is a reclaimed old stable and when you walk in you get the feeling that you’re in for something different. Currently it’s the studio of Jim Bush, who provided photography and videography that is projected on a screen behind the actors, haunting and moving images that match the on-stage action.

The play begins with the dancers/chorus: Erin Bahn, Laura Bowman, Mary Schnepf, Lynette Simmons (choreographer), and Bonnie Jean Taylor (also choreographer) in a sensual bluesy jazz dance – very fluid. Suddenly, up pops Zagreus/Dionysus, magically portrayed by the limber, lithe Greg Howze who always seems to float, and glide, and dance, and insinuate himself about the stage – very sexy.

Eileen Dugan as "Ma"
Eileen Dugan as “Ma”

Then we meet Ma (the sheriff’s mother) wonderfully and sadly played by Eileen Dugan, perfectly costumed by Callie Bush in a housecoat, in a wheelchair, smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey, and apparently just ready to die. The sheriff is played by Christian Brandjes, who excels at being an angry guy, and the sheriff is angry with his mother, his deputy, his job, probably himself, and ultimately Zagreus/Dionysus. The deputy is a younger, more accepting, energetic guy, well played by Goeffrey Pictor, who wants to stand up to his boss, but has to bide his time. And Harold White plays the mysterious gris gris man, “Dr. T” who used to be “Mama T” but at some point in the mists of time changed gender, and, though blind, sees more than the sighted. A top-notch performance.

Robert Waterhouse wrote the play and he is a true poet. The opening speech by Dionysus is a thing of beauty, haunting and lyrical. My only complaint about the entire evening was that, as much as I wanted to hear Tom Makar play the electric guitar, he tended to overshadow the poetry. And you do want to hear every line.

My dad, the English teacher, used to say “The classics aren’t classics because they’re old. They are classics because they’re so good.”

Euripides play, THE BACCHAE, premiered in 405 B.C. as live theater and here, updated by Robert Waterhouse, it speaks to us almost two and a half thousand years later, also as live theater. There’s a reason it has been around that long. There’s a reason live theater has been around even longer. Go see LOUISIANA BACCHAE and find out why.

Photos: Jim Bush – Lead image: Greg Howze as Dionysus with the Bacchantes


*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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