They’re not gonna take it: Double Edge Theatre has feminist take on ‘The Bacchae’

  • Jennifer Johnson, in foreground, plays Agave in a scene from “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae,” Double Edge Theatre’s adaptation of Eurpides’ “The Bacchae.” CONTRIBUTED/DOUGLAS MASON

  • Two heads are better than one: Double Edge Theatre members Milena Dabova, above, and Travis Coe both take on the role of Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy, in Double Edge’s new production, “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae.” PHOTO BY DAVE WEILAND

  • Walton Wilson, left, plays Cadmus and Carlos Uriona plays Tiresias in “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae.” CONTRIBUTED/DOUGLAS MASON

  • The opening scene from “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae.” CONTRIBUTED/DOUGLAS MASON

  • Treetop acrobatics have long been a staple of Double Edge Theatre productions. Here Cariel Klein appears as the ancient Greek god Chaos in a scene from “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae.” CONTRIBUTED/DAVE WEILAND

  • Travis Coe, in foreground, and Milena Dabova, center, both take on the role of Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy, in Double Edge Theatre’s new production, “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae.”  CONTRIBUTED/DOUGLAS MASON

Staff Writer
Monday, August 08, 2022

It’s a big year for Double Edge Theatre of Ashfield: 2022 marks the ensemble’s 40th anniversary, the 25th anniversary of its first performance in Ashfield, and the 20th anniversary of presenting Summer Spectacles, their colorful outdoor productions that combine storytelling, music, choreography and pageantry.

And 2022 marks a tumultuous anniversary for the country as a whole, as it was nearly 50 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed federal protection for abortion — a decision the current Supreme Court threw out in June when it overturned Roe v. Wade.

It seems appropriate, then, that Double Edge’s 2022 Summer Spectacle, “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae,” offers a fresh take on “The Bacchae,” the famous tragedy from ancient Greece — an interpretation that centers female voices in a way the original play never did.

Before a recent performance of “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae,” Stacy Klein, director and lead designer of the production, told the audience that in “The Bacchae,” by Euripides, the Bacchae — important female characters — “are hidden from view. They’re referred to but never present.”

Klein, Double Edge’s founding artistic director, said the ensemble’s remake of the play has been designed to bring these women “to the forefront” and “to let nothing get in their way of living a full life of joy.”

Indeed, this newest Double Edge production transforms Euripides’ tragedy, first believed to have been performed about 405 B.C., into something altogether different, with plenty of drama but also flashes of humor and a message about female empowerment and liberation.

And after two summers of scaled-back shows due to the pandemic, “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae” feels like a fuller production, with the audience moving as one group across Double Edge’s 105-acre property as different scenes unfold in different locations.

As originally written, “The Bacchae” seems to argue that for a society to function properly, there must be room for moderation and rational thought as well as some degree of irrationality and emotional release; insisting on one or the other could lead to tyranny or self-destruction. The play also explores the relationship between the ancient Greeks and their gods.

At the center of this story is Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, who is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele. The latter was killed by Hera, Zeus’ wife, who was angry about her husband’s affair. Following Semele’s murder, her family turned its back on the gods and denied any connection to Dionysus.

Angry in turn that his mortal family refuses to honor him, Dionysus returns to the city of Thebes, where the family lives, disguised as an ordinary traveler, and he enchants the city’s women. These “Bacchae” head to a nearby mountain and dance and hunt in an ecstatic frenzy. Dionysus also tricks Thebes’ ruler, Pentheus, into spying on the Bacchae and then exposes him to the women, who tear him to pieces.

A new edition

“The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae” departs from this storyline right from the start with one notable touch: Dionysus is portrayed by two Double Edge members, Travis Coe and Milena Dabova, who in the opening scene appear seemingly magically in a tree top some 30 feet above the ground (a tall, narrow ladder is hidden in the copse of trees).

Hearing Coe and Dabova voice their lines at the same time creates an echoing, eerie effect, as if the two really are gods (or a god). But the two also use their unique role for comic effect, in one scene offering different simultaneous speeches, then suddenly halting while one or the other shouts, “That’s not right!”

In another scene, Dabova directs her remarks to Agave (played by Jennifer Johnson), Pentheus’ mother, urging her to join the other women who have left Thebes to dance on the mountaintop. Agave dismisses the idea, even as she sounds a bitter note about feeling “squeezed by men,” including her son.

Indeed, most women in Thebes feel stifled in “this city of men,” Agave says.

Though he’s a central character in “The Bacchae,” Pentheus only appears in the new production as a straw figure that Coe, in another witty sequence, maneuvers across a field, voicing the character to warn two other men, Cadmus (Pentheus’ grandfather) and Tiresias (an elderly blind seer), not to join the Bacchae on the mountain.

Music is always a key component of Double Edge Summer Spectacles, though in “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae” it takes on a more ethereal dimension, presented mostly through a chorus whose members float on the edge of different scenes; notes sound in a few other places on recorder, violin, trumpet and harp.

The play builds to two climatic scenes, including in the ensemble’s barn, which has been transformed into a forest — the mountaintop of the Bacchae — with several large tree trunks, roots splayed behind some of them, and large branches arranged in the building. One cluster of thick branches has been fashioned into a “nest” that’s cabled to the barn ceiling, allowing some characters to perch in it while another person rotates it by hand from below.

It’s a dreamlike sequence that perhaps best embodies the play’s theme, as Agave joins the Bacchae and the women slowly dance and speak in turn — in a number of languages including Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew and Kechua — about the connections they feel to the earth, their ancestors, and each other.

As Klein writes in production notes, the women are “claiming their Rites of duality, liberation and joy … [and] rematriating their own languages, ritual, ceremony, and story.”

A final torchlit scene at the property’s pond, with darkness now fallen, reinforces that idea, as several women — no men are present — call out, “O Bacchae hear my cry.”

Ensemble member Cariel Klein, a co-producer of “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae,” says the production had been planned some years back, in part because it references the first play Double Edge, started as a women’s ensemble in Boston in 1982, ever performed.

That play, “RITES,” was another adaptation of “The Bacchae,” this one written by British playwright Maureen Duffy in the 1960s and set in a women’s public restroom, with an all-female cast.

But “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae” feels “especially timely now,” Klein notes, given what’s been happening in the country over the last several years, from the sexual assaults against women that gave rise to the #MeToo movement to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

In that sense, “O Bacchae hear my cry” might have another translation for women today: “We’re not gonna take it anymore.”

More information about “The Hidden Territories of the Bacchae” and Double Edge Theatre is available at doubleedgetheatre.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.