'Bacchae' to the Future

How in (a Greek) god's name can the Rude Mechs re-create 'Dionysus in 69' in '09?

<i>Dionysus Then</i>: The Performance Group
Dionysus Then: The Performance Group

"Dionysus taught me everything I know."

In making this statement to the crowd in the lobby of the B. Iden Payne Theatre last week, Richard Schechner could well have been referring in shorthand to Dionysus in 69, the groundbreaking experimental adaptation of The Bacchae that he created with the Performance Group 41 years ago. That was the subject of his talk, and it certainly ranks as a watershed project for him as a director. But it's equally valid to interpret his reference as being to the man-deity himself, whose actions propel Euripides' tragedy. After all, as Schechner described him to the assembled that evening, Dionysus is a god of dancing, free sexuality, revelry, and ecstasy, and all of those elements have informed Schechner's theatrical work and were part of what made Dionysus in 69 such a revolutionary and influential work in American theatre.

The Performance Group production gleefully took a sledgehammer to the fourth wall that kept audiences comfortably separated from the action on stage. In the East Village garage where the performances took place, the entire space was the stage, with the spectators – who had no fixed seats, just scaffolding on which to perch and walls against which to lean – being approached by actors and actively solicited to take part in dances and ritual activities. It was a kind of interaction made all the more transgressive – and, as the production garnered attention, all the more notorious – by the fact that much of the cast frequently performed the play in the nude – women and men. This encouraged some who bought tickets to consider the show little more than a free-for-all orgy, but what Schechner and company were really after was a means for audiences to experience firsthand something of the ecstatic freedom that the women of Thebes were said to enjoy in The Bacchae when they followed Dionysus to the mountain outside the city and joined in his frenzied rites of worship. That identification with the Theban women had a secondary purpose later in the play: leading the audience to be implicated in the murder of Pentheus, the Theban ruler who, in Euripides' original, is torn limb from limb by the women after a vengeful Dionysus makes them see Pentheus as a lion invading their camp. Through the sort of willful deception that is at the heart of theatre – what you're seeing is not what it truly is – the god is getting his followers to do what he wants. And in Dionysus in 69 and his subsequent stage work, Schechner has done much the same thing. "I make no bones about it: I'm a manipulator," he told the Payne Theatre crowd. "Your job is to resist or not, as the case may be."

Now, four decades after Dionysus in 69 rattled the cages of the American theatre, Schechner has come to Austin much as the titular god came to Thebes: a much-lauded figure out of the East seeking new participants in his revels. The key difference here is that Schechner doesn't need to bring a band of dancing, drinking, true-believing maenads with him; they're already here. Local theatrical mavericks the Rude Mechanicals have been carrying the torch of the Performance Group and incorporating many of its tradition-busting practices into their own productions for 13 years now. In fact, within the company, Dionysus in 69 has been the stuff of legend, a production revered for its innovation and daring and impact on audiences. So esteemed is the work by the Rudes that they are taking on their shoulders the ambitious, audacious task of re-creating the production four decades after the fact, something almost no one has attempted in all the years since.

And Now: The Rude Mechanicals
And Now: The Rude Mechanicals

Madge Darlington, one of the collective's six co-producing artistic directors (co-PADs for short) and a co-director of the Rude Mechs' re-creation, describes the project as a way for the Rudes both to pay tribute to the artists whose work has influenced them and to gain a deeper sense of how they accomplished what they did by doing it themselves. "What are these shoulders we're standing on?" is the question the Rudes asked themselves. Actually mounting a work such as Dionysus in 69, says Darlington, "is a way for us to learn that and to show our audiences, 'This is where we come from.'" If all goes well with this re-creation – or, knowing the Rudes, even if it doesn't (maybe especially if it doesn't) – other re-creations of innovative and influential avant-garde works from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties will follow.

Of course, putting one of these breakthrough performances back on stage isn't like throwing up just one more revival of Othello or The Odd Couple. The Rude Mechs aren't merely taking a script and giving it their own spin. They're adamantly striving to be as faithful as possible to the original presentation. With Dionysus in 69, that's meant studying whatever documentation exists on the show and its creation – primarily, Brian De Palma's film of the production and the 1970 book Dionysus in 69: The Performance Group – and scrupulously working out their blocking, movements, and, yes, that infamous interaction with the audience according to the information therein. And, perhaps most importantly, they've approached as authoritative a figure as exists with regard to the show – its director – to assist them in achieving the greatest level of accuracy.

During Schechner's Austin visit in November, facilitated by the University of Texas' Humanities Institute, which awarded him its 2009-10 Cline Centennial Visiting Professorship, the director was able to look at the show as it had been pieced together by the Rudes and fill in gaps in their knowledge, say, staging that wasn't visible in De Palma's filming or that had been edited out of the final cut. And in cases where changes from the original production were inevitable – the Performance Group's Wooster Street garage could accommodate 200-300 people, but for safety reasons attendance for the Rudes' performances will be limited to 99 people – Schechner offered suggestions that preserved the spirit of the original. "This play depends upon body heat," he noted, so why not cut a few platforms and close the space in some. Co-PAD Shawn Sides, who is also co-directing the re-creation and who studied with Schechner at New York University in the Nineties, says, "His presence, knowledge, intelligence – it has all been very inspiring and has helped us breathe more life into the work."

Schechner, however, points out that no re-creation of Dionysus in 69 in 2009 can capture the true feel of the show because the times are so different. The original production opened the day after Robert F. Kennedy's assassination and two months after Martin Luther King Jr.'s. It was the year of the violent protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the massacre of student protesters in Mexico City, student and worker strikes in Paris, the occupation of Prague by Soviet tanks, and a surge in opposition to the Vietnam War so vocal and widespread that President Lyndon Johnson declined to seek a second term. That sense of the world in violent upheaval profoundly informed Dionysus in 69's portrayal of an established order being overturned, of repressed thoughts and impulses being unleashed. At the end of the performance, when William Finley's Dionysus would proclaim himself a successor to the president – the show's title works in part as a campaign slogan – the volatile elections of 1968 caused it to resonate in ways that it couldn't today.

Besides, insists Schechner, Finley was Finley, and his Dionysus grew out of who he was and what he experienced both in that time and in the Performance Group's collaborative process. And the same is true of William Shepherd and his Pentheus and Joan MacIntosh and her Agave, Pentheus' mother, and every other performer and role in the production. Having the Rude Mechs' Thomas Graves play William Finley playing Dionysus removes the personal stakes for the actor that were built into the original production, in Schechner's opinion. "It lets him off the hook," he says. Because certain parts of the work are founded on game structures, it's crucial that the actor be engaged on the most immediate and personal level possible. Choices are offered to the actor, and he can't treat them as if the consequences don't matter. "These games are absolute," the director says. "The stakes are real. They may be tiny, little things, but they're real."

With all due respect to her former teacher, Sides doesn't see the Rudes' re-creation quite the same way. "On this production, I'm just not interested in whether Dionysus is hermaphroditic or Pentheus is 16," she says. "Those things are interesting generally, but that's never been our focus or way in to this piece. I'm interested in what William Finley was like and Bill Shepherd and Joan MacIntosh. And I don't care about Thebes or the Greeks or Euripides – I want to dig into downtown New York City in 1968 and the Performance Group. That history is the important one to me. Richard uses 'museum piece' as a bugaboo to try and dissuade us from using the original blocking and gestures and floor and speech patterns. But that is the exact phrase I've used from the beginning to describe what I want to do. We are not aiming to wow anyone with our own inventive or insightful adaptation of The Bacchae. That's a whole other production. We're more interested in making something akin to a Civil War re-enactment. We wanted to do this re-creation precisely because this is the type of play Rudes would never do in a million years. And, even so, it deeply informs to our collective artistic history and aesthetic. And we know that the best way to learn about a play is to perform it.

"We know we can't re-create the context, and we can't re-create the 'feeling' of the original – in part because that revolution happened – it succeeded. We Rudes, and lots of other companies around the world, use our own names in our plays all the time, for instance. So Dionysus in 69 will always be removed and nostalgic. But we believe the production will be illuminating and pretty fascinating as well.

"Local references make a great tool for engaging the audience. So we'll be layering in a little bit of Austin allusions and the actors' own names in order to relax the whole thing a little bit and to tip our hats to Richard's desires. We have a lot of love and respect for him. It's going to be confusing, but we'll do our dangedest to bring everyone along through playbill info and lobby signage. I'm not willing to give up the Performance Group's names. That's the most interesting part of the play to me. And Thomas is going to have to figure out how to play William Finley playing Dionysus. He can do it! He's a really great actor and accustomed to dealing with 'layers.'"

Even with an idol of theirs, the Rudes can't resist bucking the system, rocking the boat, going their own way. Sides describes how Schechner reblocked the duet scenes between Dionysus and Pentheus and had Graves and Josh Meyer alter their body language to something more contemporary than was used in 1968. "In part, he said he wants to correct his 'mistakes' – his word – from 40 years ago." However, she adds, "We like those 'mistakes,' and we'll be keeping the blocking and gestures from the film." It's almost as if the Dionysian Schechner has been recast as Pentheus, representing the established order that's being overturned – albeit in a small way – by the new gods in town. In which case, it's the Rudes' turn to say, "Dionysus taught me everything I know."

That said, if the Greek drama teaches us anything, it's that it's never wise to count the old god out, especially if he's as wily and subversive as a Dionysus. When asked how Schechner's presence affected the work that the Rudes had already been doing on Dionysus in 69, Sides replied, "Richard's presence was deeply inspirational and gratifying and horribly disruptive. Which is absolutely perfect for this project."

Dionysus in 69 will be performed Dec. 3-20, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo. For more information, call 476-7833 or visit www.rudemechs.com.

Dionysus in 09

Richard Schechner
Richard Schechner

The Humanities Institute is hosting Recreating Dionysus in 69, a preshow talk with Richard Schechner and the Rude Mechs Friday, Dec. 4, 7pm, at the Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo. The performance of Dionysus in 69 follows at 8pm.

The Austin Film Society will present Brian De Palma's film Dionysus in 69 Sunday, Dec. 6, 1pm, at Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz, 320 E. Sixth. This early work by the director attempts to translate the fourth-wall-obliterating style of the play to cinema by presenting it in split-screen, with cameras recording both the cast and the audience. Richard Schechner will be in attendance.

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Rude Mechs, Dionysus in 69, Richard Schechner, Shawn Sides, Madge Darlington, Thomas Graves, Josh Meyer, Humanities Institute, Brian De Palma

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