Euripides’ classic tragedy, which pits the carnally passionate demi-god Dionysus against his authoritarian cousin Pentheus, is adapted for modern-day mischief in Jesse Freedman’s Karaoke Bacchae, which premiered at the New Ohio Theater’s Ice Factory Festival. What says drunken revelry and abandoning inhibition like killing it at a karaoke bar?
In the traditional story, Dionysus and his savage female followers return to his mother’s hometown to find his teachings condemned and celebrity status ignored by the governing authority, Pentheus. Pentheus imprisons Dionysus, but Dionysus breaks free, throws Pentheus into a trancelike conversion, and sacrifices him to the Bacchae. In this new version, Pentheus (Tim Craig) is a bar manager who cancels karaoke night for a championship hockey game. And Dionysus (burlesque performer James Tigger! Ferguson) is a washed-up, stumbling, glittery (of course) demi-god occupying the body of Iggy Pop. Dionysus and the Bacchae rebels against the establishment, in both senses of the word. The show blends Euripides’ words with other cultural texts, resulting in a pastiche of hip-hop, poetry, emails, Cards Against Humanity phrases, and ubiquitous karaoke songs (Journey, anyone?)
Unfortunately, too much of the piece is to incomprehensible to be meaningful. Dionysus and the Bacchae slur through their lines over loud karaoke instrumentals. Other characters recite their lines over each other so that all of the play’s text becomes a chaotic blur. While it would be understandable to includes moments of chaos into the piece to reflect on the nature of Dionysian madness, the all of Karaoke Bacchae feels like angry, fruitless riot with little to say. Why Freedman, who also directed the piece, would want to alienate his audience from the characters or ideas to such an extent is a mystery. And while it’s billed as dance theatre, the only notable incorporation of movement was a Keystone Cops-style chase scene and lots of drunken stumbling.
The most rewarding scene by far was when the Bacchae unanimously addressed the audience with an over-the-top, threateningly violent email from a sorority sister to her rivals, showing how our primitive instincts towards danger, Bacchic chaos, and jealousy are alive today. A more focused approach to the piece would illuminate more of the adaptation’s nuances and uncover deeply intricate connections with our contemporary lives.