Last week, the St. Olaf Muse Project performed “The Bacchae,” an ancient Greek play written by Euripides. The play in and of itself is noteworthy: it is a fascinating tragedy based on a Greek myth about the royal family of Thebes. This performance, though, was notable for an additional reason. All of the organizers and leaders of the production – including director Thomas Bryant ’22 – are second year Great Conversation students.
In the play, the god Dionysus is the cousin of Pentheus, the King of Thebes. When the king’s mother and aunts start a rumor that Dionysus is not a god, Dionysus comes to the city-state and compels all the women to take part in a mysterious ritual in honor of the god. Dionysus then disguises himself and sends the anxious king to investigate the women’s actions dressed as a woman himself. The play ends when Pentheus is torn to pieces by his own entranced mother, who presents her own father with her son’s head.
The St. Olaf students’ production made a few changes to the traditional Greek interpretation of the play. Taylor Swift and Kesha songs were incorporated into the show; a messenger appeared in a video to report the news of the king’s death. While most of the minor characters dressed in togas, Pentheus and Dionysus wore modern clothes. The god Dionysus, notably, was played by Ariel Bodnar-Klein ’23.
Overall, the performance was entertaining and enthralling. Parts of it were unexpected: the transition from a traditional Greek chorus to “Look What You Made Me Do” is not what one expects from a Greek tragedy. However, those moments added a touch of comedy to a deeply sad and violent play without cheapening the message.
There is one aspect of the performance discussed by the director, Bryant, that bears mentioning. When Dionysus convinces Pentheus to go spy on the women of Thebes, he dresses the king in women’s clothing in order to disguise him. As Bryant points out in the play’s program, the image of a man pretending to be a woman to invade women’s privacy evokes hurtful stereotypes about transgender women. Bryant and the entire production make clear in the program and the performance that they do not want the Bacchae to be misconstrued as transphobic.
As a whole, the incorporation of modern elements worked. The directors were able to make Euripides’ work more accessible to an audience of college students without overlooking or detracting from the message of the work. The Bacchae is a difficult play to interpret – there are scholarly debates about it to this day – but the students of the St. Olaf Muse Project put together a compelling and exciting production.