BY BRANDON LAFVING The Theater Collective entered a new, modern translation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, into the record. They pulled on a number of events and artifacts from recent history to connect Philly audiences to the masterpiece. The troupe is the brain-baby of one of the most prestigious authorial couples of Philadlephia, the eminent Lili Bita, poetess, actress, author, and Robert Zaller, author and professor of history at Drexel University. Zaller translated and adapted The Bacchae, while Bita plays the deranged/bereaved Agave, bewitched murderer of her own child.
Original author of the script, Euripides, was one of the most prolific playwrights of ancient Greece, and the play is considered one of his finest. It has survived the test of time, in part, because of its acerbic criticism of the Ancient Greek gods, highlighting the struggles of a civilization that has become wiser than its own idols. I could certainly relate. The Bacchae focuses on the vengeful Dionysos, the god of wine, orgies, etc. Angered by the rumors spread about his illegitimate birth, the god plots to wreak havoc on the city of Thebes, where he spreads inebriation, promiscuity, and rioting. The talented Frank Brückner synthesized a number of roles to fill the part, most prominently affecting Gary Oldman’s accent and arrogance in The Fifth Element as the ruthless businessman, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. Brückner’s performance was less than ideal, due to poor eye contact with the audience, but for the most part he filled out the god’s golden sandals with his own two feet. Lili Bita’s gut-wrenching performance of Agave, murderer of her own son, was transcendent. This was expected. But the realism with which she evinced her character’s shock, terror, and grief could not have been anticipated by anyone not having shared that experience. Other players could not keep up.
The translation of the screenplay channeled apt references to contemporary themes and media. It did not always suit my taste, as when the prophet Tiresias retold the story of Dionysos’ conception. As the story goes, Zeus, upon seeing Dionysos’ mother, Semele, “honed in on her like a scud missile.” Other analogies were equally bold and off-putting to me, but later, Zaller’s translation was completely exonerated by an adept reference to Otto (Kevin Kline) in A Fish Called Wanda. “It’s K-k-k-k-Ken, c-c-c-c-coming to k-k-k-kill me,” became the expression of the prophet’s rage at being discounted by king Pentheus. He says: “You think I’m f-f-f-f-f-flapping my jaws for nothing?” Considering that the two ends of the metaphor were last words – the last words of Otto before being demolished by a steamroller, and Tiresias’ last warning to king Pentheus, this flash of wit hit me immediately with a giggle, which was followed by a surprised roar when I got the joke.