Can art be a salve in a world that seems to careen from crisis to existential crisis?
Theatrical director Anne Bogart has considered that notion.
“I don’t think that our job as artists is to save” the planet, Bogart said recently at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where her company’s adaptation of “The Bacchae” runs through April 5. “Robert Irwin, the visual artist, says that art is all about perception. And in rough times, we get scared and shut down. Our job is to open up perception — not to be a savior but to allow us to come back to our senses.”
That can involve works like “The Bacchae,” Euripides’ tragedy of ego, disbelief and death.
Adapted by Bogart’s SITI Company from Euripides’ 2,500-year-old text, “The Bacchae” revolves around Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility who was conceived by supreme deity Zeus with a mortal. Dionysus comes to Thebes to prove his divine birth, but Theban King Pentheus disbelieves that he is, in fact, a god. Tragedy follows.
This new version of the play, which premiered at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles in 2018, has two choruses, one seen, the other unseen, Bogart noted. In Thebes, Dionysus has driven the women and a few of the men mad with ecstasy. They go up into the mountain where they go wild, drinking and ripping animals apart. The chorus that we do see comes to town with Dionysus.
“A lot of times productions make the mistake that both groups are mad, writhing sexually and dripping blood from their mouth,” Bogart said. “That’s not true. The group that follows Dionysus is like a cult. They’re contained and controlled.”
The company does not have to stretch to give the show contemporary resonance, Bogart noted. It’s in the text.
“You have the Bacchans led by Dionysus in disguise, and he comes and says, ‘You guys are in trouble. You’re talking about putting up walls, excluding what is foreign, keeping what is unknown out,’ ” Bogart said. “ ‘This is going to drive you mad.’
“Pentheus stands for intolerance and limitation, hierarchy and patriarchy,” she said. “Dionysus says, ‘If you don’t let part of you go — if you don’t find your Dionysian side — you’re sublimating a great deal of energy.’ That’s what happens when Pentheus himself is driven mad.”
A Newport, R.I., native, Bogart, 68, started directing in high school, a pursuit she continued as she bounced around four undergraduate colleges and through graduate school at New York University. She made her name as a fierce interpreter of plays and operas working in New York’s downtown theater scene, where she made work on rooftops and in shop windows. It was while working abroad, in places such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, that she began to sharpen her focus on America.
“I became more curious about who are we? Where do we come from? Those questions have been the center of my life,” Bogart said.
Of all the arts, theater is uniquely positioned to help achieve Irwin’s suggestion about helping people to be open in a climate of fear.
“As humans, we have physical sensations, feelings, perceptions, mind states — all of which can be shut down by fear,” Bogart said. “The theater is one art form whose subject matter is always, ‘How are we, audience and actors, getting along?’ That question about social systems is at the heart of what we do.”
Twin Cities history
Bogart and Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki founded the Saratoga International Theatre Institute in 1992, with a focus on international collaborations, rigorous, ensemble-based training and creating new work. SITI first performed in the Twin Cities in 1996, taking a piece called “The Medium” to the Southern Theater. Based on the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” “Medium” was part of Walker Art Center’s eighth Out There festival.
Bogart and company returned to the Walker in 1999 with “bobrauschenbergamerica,” their kaleidoscopic piece about the spectacular and the mundane.
And she has a friendship with Joseph Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, that dates back 30 years. They met on a theater artist trip to Palestine. She invited him to join the company, and he was a member for SITI’s inaugural season.
“I knew him as an actor,” Bogart said. “I had no idea that he would become this brilliant director, artistic director and great ambassador for the theater.”
“It was hugely important to me as a young artist,” Haj said. “She’s remained a friend, colleague, mentor. She’s one of America’s truly great thinkers — I love her mind.”
Bogart said that she’s drawn to the Greeks, in general, not simply because of the poetry of the works, and the fact that they wrestle with big questions. Many of the plays have gender balance. And women have power and agency. In “The Bacchae,” it’s a family member, Pentheus’ mother Agave, who tragically helps to rebalance the forces of humanity and nature.
“It has powerful women and powerful female energy,” Bogart said.
SITI co-artistic director Ellen Lauren plays Dionysus. “I cast her that way not because she’s a woman, but because of what she brings to the role,” Bogart said. “It means a great deal that she’s playing Dionysus as a man and exactly as Euripides described him, with long curly hair and looking effeminate. Dionysus is very gender-fluid.”
That’s true of the production as a whole. The majority of the chorus is played by skirt-wearing men with beards.
Like much of Greek theater, “The Bacchae” is a purification ritual for our times.
“Aristotle used the word ‘catharsis,’ and I like the etymology — to shed light in dark places, like a cathode ray,” Bogart said. “It’s not only cleaning the spirit but putting light in dark places. You can’t keep out the irrational, the mess. Those things have to have a place of expression, if only to give vent to tension that could build up and blow.”