There’s a little bit of Jesus in Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, madness, revelry, and theater. He is the child of a human woman and a god. He takes on a mortal form to interact with human beings. Anyone fond of Greek tragedy or mythology is getting their righteous email pants on in response to me writing this, but I’m just trying to point out—to those who notice the similarities—that dying and rising gods are fairly common throughout world religions. And the plays of the Greeks were not only theater. They were also religious rites.
Upon entering Shaking the Tree’s large warehouse, it’s hard to look away from the striking figure sitting on stage whose hair is braided into the shape of faun horns, whose neck shines with iridescent bird feathers, and whose long green gown spills out for yards with flowering fabric.
At the risk of ruining a mystery, this is Dionysos (Aries Osiris). He sits motionless until the play commences, at which time he stands to shocking, god-like height, introduces himself as the son of Zeus, and explains that his godliness has been challenged by the royalty of Thebes—his own aunt Agave (Kelly Godell) and cousin, the current king, Pentheus (Zak Westfall). Dionysos has returned to punish his family for their lack of belief, a variation on many recurring themes in Greek tragedies where family members eat, marry, and murder each other.
Osiris has a strong handle on playing a god, and their performance is both that of a grand master of ceremonies and an icy observer. Westfall and his character’s guard (Caleb Sohigian) manage to play comedy in opposition to Osiris’ majesty, and for that they deserve high praise.
A truly difficult aspect of adapting a Greek play is that something needs to be done with the chorus—who are like an editor’s note of five to 20 people shouting background info the audience might want to know. What Shaking the Tree has done with this Greek chorus of Dionysos’ followers, the Bakkhai, is another major reason to see the show. They speak in intricate pairings, sometimes twos, sometimes threes. The pairings shift as much as the play implies that they do (sexually) with each other. They are the capricious, gender-non-conforming followers of the god of inebriation and theater, after all. They will eyefuck you, if you invite it.
Within the group are stars. Not everyone in the chorus is suited for the songs that resemble spirituals, but during more classic choral moments, the singing fared better. I wasn’t expecting much from Godell at the beginning—her high, small voice felt lost among the power of members like Tamera Lyn and Gerrin Delane Mitchell—but when Agave is spurred to fury, Godell’s rage shot through the audience like a shock. And when Bakkhai reached its climax, the chorus mesmerized all with an illustrative dance that made me wonder if they are all more dancers that sing, than singers that dance.
Behind every Greek tragedy is so much story that new audiences can feel very confused. In many ways, reading comics—with all the retroactive history rewrites, changing character names, and multiple versions of the same story—best prepared me for Greek tragedies. In Bakkhai, there’s no attempt made to explain that Bromios is another name for Dionysos, and I was way too afraid of the chorus to pull out my phone. So I can’t promise that everything about Bakkhai will make sense, but Shaking the Tree puts on a hell of an interpretation—all colors, beautiful occultish folk art, and age-old human drama.