Dionysos Takes Human Form in a Bloody Quest for Recognition in Shaking the Tree’s Bakkhai

Anne Carson's take on Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy opens the company's season.

(Meg Nanna)

Dionysos' (Aries Osiris) declaration of divinity in Bakkhai isn't as desperate as Jesus' or Yeezus' demand for worship. The character, who represents duality and fluidity in Shaking the Tree Theatre's production of Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae and goes by the plural pronoun they, doesn't need love, but simply requires that their godhood be celebrated as natural law. It's a fact that their late mother's mortal family won't accept, bringing Dionysos (the spelling used by the writer of this adaptation, Anne Carson) to Thebes in a hero's quest for recognition, illustrating the brutal lengths they will go to seek revenge.

My first exposure to The Bacchae, the Dionysian Xena: Warrior Princess episode, maintains parallels to Bakkhai and its source material. On TV, Bacchus (the god's Roman name) was a ram-horned red devil with a harem of vampiric succubi who had to be vanquished. At Shaking the Tree, Dionysos is a beautiful, androgynous youth who spends at least a half-hour in a meditative trance while the audience is seated. In the production, Osiris looks like a medieval Janelle Monae in long braids fashioned like horns and a verdant green gown adorned with flowers and moss that drapes across the length of the stage. Though beauty belies the character's vengeance. The Dionysos in Bakkhai is far crueler than Xena's Bacchus, far more successful in their mission, and far more predatory.

Kadmos (David Bodin), Dionysos' mortal grandfather, comes closest to acknowledging his relative's divine origins, if only half-heartedly, by simply questioning the harm in proclaiming them a god, while the rest of the family, including Pentheus (Zak Westfall), Dionysos' cousin and Theban king, won't accept these "alternative facts." He also wants his mother, Agave (Kelly Godell), freed from Dionysos' hedonistic influence and conservative order restored. Though the besuited Pentheus ends up sealing his own fate when, after arresting Dionysos, he insults the god by suggesting they cut their luxurious braids.

Dionysos escapes Pentheus' prison using wit, seduction and supernatural powers, convincing their cousin that the only way to spy on the Bakkhai—a femme Greek chorus that cheers and sings while roaming the audience—is to dress like a woman. The plan both excites and frightens the man. Knowing the ruse won't work, Dionysos builds trust with Pentheus like someone who helps you look for the wallet they stole from you themselves. Under the god's sway, Pentheus could be a baby drag queen at CC Slaughters, slowly building the confidence to sashay freely.

You sense Dionysos' betrayal coming, but there's still something shocking about it when Pentheus breaks out from the Bakkhai's control far too late, and only then recognizes his own doom. This is among Bakkhai's stronger moments. Godell's and Bodin's reactions nail the still-horrific trope of mothers killing their own children. Dionysos' refusal to forgive their grandfather and aunt makes this production feel like a queer revenge story.

I wish Bakkhai's pace were slowed, so we could revel in how Dionysos outwits everyone onstage. Beyond that, Shaking the Tree does justice to a gruesome narrative that Nietzsche helped pull from obscurity, and the company's textural projections fill in some of the play's more graphic and difficult moments. With its lush greenery, Bakkhai gives an unexpected boost against seasonal depression, and with its cast, provides a timely take on an ancient story pushing the limits of excess.

SEE IT: Bakkhai is at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., shaking-the-tree.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, through Nov. 2. $15-$35.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.