Chicago Theatre Review
Tragedy in the Mountains
The Revel – House Theatre
Mount Olympus becomes the Appalachians, the countryside of Golden Era Greece is now a tiny, rural, Southern town during the 1930’s and the Deacon embodies the characters of both the Messenger and Dionysus. This is Damon Kiely’s moving and entertaining adaptation of Euripides’ “The Bacchae.” For those familiar with this Greek tragedy, Theban King Pentheus is turned into Peter, a third generation foreman of a failing textile mill, and his mother Agave becomes Agatha in this play. In the hands of this talented playwright we get to witness a homespun, cautionary fable about the seductive power of religion. It actually tells us that any form of power, religious, political or otherwise, can corrupt. Kiely’s play illustrates how the promise of a balm for instant relief and redemption should always be under suspicion. But desperate people will do desperate things to help their situation. Kiely draws a parallel between the drama of Euripides and the plight of the destitute during the Great Depression.
The handsome and hypnotic Deacon, played with affable ease and appeal by skilled actor Andy Lutz, has been wandering everywhere throughout the poverty stricken South. He’s converted his flock to a religion of renewal, preaching God’s message through music and dance (the ensemble’s stirring clog dancing has been choreographed by Barbara Silverman). As in the original Greek drama, the Deacon’s cult is entirely female, whipped into a frenzy through his songs and a promise of hope. Chris Mathews is a strong, struggling antagonist, trying to keep his small town alive by means of the family’s dress factory. Mr. Mathews’ portrayal of Peter is multilayered, never all bad or good; he’s just a mortal, trying to keep the business afloat and his neighbors from starvation.
The town’s law-keeping force is embodied by the Sheriff, rendered with bullying bravado by Michael E. Smith. Peter’s widowed mother Agatha, who dreams of someday buying a new bed (since her old one has become a cruel reminder of a battered marriage), is beautifully and richly played by the exquisite Sarah Charipar. At first resistant to the Deacon’s seductive message and his promise of renewal, Agatha eventually gives in to the energy of the charismatic young preacher. The influence of her daughter Cadie (a finely nuanced portrayal by Christine Mayland Perkins), as well the pressure exerted by the town women, her fellow millworkers, ultimately brings Agatha into the fold. After the Deacon is imprisoned by the Sheriff for inciting a riot among the millworkers, and Peter attempts to infiltrate the mob in order to bring the women back to their senses, unthinkable horror and doom emerge.
Director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig has orchestrated a rousingly energized and enthusiastic production of Kiely’s adaptation. Staged upon Grant Sabin’s wood-hewn, mobile set design, composed mainly of movable bleachers and stair units, the play envelopes the audience, winding its way up into the mountains and down into the valley. Izumi Inaba has fashioned a gorgeous wardrobe for her actors in a palette of Appalachian blues, greens and grays. Flavored with Jess McIntosh’s original gospel hymns and Bluegrass accompaniment, and performed by the entire talented ensemble, this affecting, inspirational production absolutely rocks The House.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 4-October 25 by The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-769-3832 or by going to www.thehousetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.