The Guthrie faces up to `The Bacchae'

While umpteen thousand plays the world over look outdated the minute they're produced, ``The Bacchae'' stands defiantly ageless. Euripides's tragedy - directed by Liviu Ciulei and continuing at the Guthrie Theater here through Sept. 13 - has passed its 2,400th birthday without a wrinkle. That does not, however, mean it is an easy work to confront, for either audiences or directors.

Mr. Ciulei served as the Guthrie's artistic director from 1980 to '86 in a fascinating, up-and-down tenure marked by some tough battles with the theater's administration. (Since Ciulei's resignation, the Guthrie has restructured the relationship between its creative and business halves, to the increased freedom of the artistic director.)

Prior to his Guthrie stint, the Romanian-born Ciulei ran the Bulandra Theater in Bucharest from 1963 to '72. He has since directed both theater and opera all over the map, and one of his films - ``Forest of the Hanged'' - won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965.

But Ciulei had never before attempted a Greek tragedy - it being ``the kind of thing,'' he told one interviewer, ``I've always been scared of up until now.'' Euripides inspires that kind of fear and respect, even in the heart of a director known for his interpretive fearlessness.

One's first glimpse of ``The Bacchae'' (for which Ciulei also contributed the scenic design) takes in two massive granitelike slabs at the rear of the Guthrie's thrust stage, between which hangs a large golden sphere.

``The secret to life,'' says Dionysos, is ``balance, inner and outer.'' In the play's clash between Dionysos, god of wine, and the rigid king Pentheus, more than just that granite comes crashing down.

Thanks largely to Kenneth Cavander's fresh, unusually actable translation, this is no easy face-off between good and evil. Euripides was enough of a thinker and dramatist to find layers of complexity in his philosophical debate. Dionysos and his frenzied throng of Bacchae exact their revenge on the nonbelieving ruler of Thebes - but at a terrible price. The road to inner and outer balance is paved in blood, and no one is immune from the potential destruction en route.

Ciulei, working with lighting designer Marcus Dilliard and Tony Award-winning costumer Patricia Zipprodt, has fashioned a mysteriously multicultural ancient Greece, drawing visually from African, Asian, and Mediterranean motifs. The female Chorus features three black actresses, an Hispanic, and an East Indian. There's a wonderful turn by Thomas Ikeda (seen in the Off Broadway revival of ``Pacific Overtures'') as the blind prophet, Teriesias, made up in ghostly white body paint and resembling the Sankai Juku dancers of Japan.

The result? Surprisingly, it plays much more respectfully and even cautiously than it sounds. It may be the least meddlesome production of Ciulei's entire Guthrie career.

It's also extremely intriguing, a bracing counterpart to the Guthrie's other Greek offering this year, Lee Breuer's song-filled ``Gospel at Colonus.''

``The Bacchae'' features two good young actors - Peter Francis James and Michael Cumpsty, as Dionysos and Pentheus, respectively. And, although neither can quite muster the genuinely imposing stature this titanic struggle demands, each carries a good deal of wit and grace.

Some performance and production elements work better than others. The god-imposed earthquake that closes Act I isn't stylized enough, falling into the more conventional brand of spectacle that hindered Ciulei's ``Peer Gynt'' back in 1983. And Ciulei may let the words rule the last 20 minutes too heavily, not lending them enough of a theatrical spin.

Judging from ``The Bacchae'' alone, Ciulei may have gotten an undeserved reputation for noodling with the classics during his Guthrie directorship. During those years, he also introduced to the Twin Cities the work of fellow Eastern European 'emigr'es Andrei Serban and, most importantly, Lucian Pintilie.

The Guthrie is undergoing its first season under artistic director Garland Wright, a Ciulei prot'eg'e. Mr. Wright's apparent commitment to a tough, daunting season of classics (including the ``House of Bernarda Alba,'' JoAnne Akalaitis's reworking of ``Leonce and Lena,'' and Wright's ``Richard III'') bodes well for the long-range artistic health of the Guthrie. Though the season isn't off to the most sterling box office start, time has yet to tell what kind of audiences Wright's company will draw.

For now, it is tribute enough to Ciulei's rendition of ``The Bacchae'' that Euripides's words get equal footing with the director's own theatrical concerns. Fittingly, Ciulei's most brilliant effect of the evening is also the most blisteringly quiet: the climactic silent scream emitted by Pentheus's mother, when she realizes that she has murdered her own son. In moments such as these, Ciulei reminds us that ``The Bacchae'' may be 2,400 years old - but age has nothing to do with power.

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