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Can a Greek Tragedy Be Funny?

Date: Mar 29, 2013

A Queens theatre find unexpected humor in The Bacchae

Euripides isn't exactly known for his comedy. The ancient Greek tragedian wrote such plot twisting dramas as Medea, Electra, The Trojan Women and Orestes. But in Femme Fatale Theater's latest version of The Bacchae, playing Mar. 28-Apr. 13 at the Secret Theatre in Queens (in a co-production with the Queens Players), director Robert Ribar is interested in mining some of the inherent humor in the ancient text.

It may not be immediately obvious where the laughs are. The play follows the horrible fate of Pentheus, King of Thebes, after he refuses to worship Dionysus. 'a0The god is so incensed that he uses an elaborate scheme to make his female worshippers, the Bacchae, tear Pentheus limb from limb. And one of those crazed, possessed women is Pentheus' own mother.


But while he doesn't deny the tragedy, Ribar does see more than one tone in the play. "There are all these two-hander scenes between Dionysus and Pentheus that are very cat and mouse," he explains. "Pentheus thinks he's a cat but he's not. So it's fun when we see Dionysus willfully playing the victim, but then taking over the situation. There's also a lot of great sexual tension between these two characters."


Later in the play, when a messenger delivers terrible news about what has occurred off stage, Ribar splits the speech between two actors who "trade off lines as if they were in a classic vaudeville act," acting out outrageous actions and putting on silly voices.


Femme Fatale got its start in 2011 with an all-male version of Oscar Wilde's Salome, which also mined humor from a violent, classical tale. That production taught Ribar that audiences can re-engage with ancient plays, or perhaps discover new things in them, if they find comedy where they expect nothing but suffering.


Salome did so well at the Secret Theatre that the group was asked to curate a late-night series of its own. "Queer Not Cool" was established, featuring "mostly queer artists sharing their geeky obsessions," says Ribar.


Jonathan Emerson, the artistic director of Queens Players, which is the company in residence at Secret Theatre, approached Ribar about doing The Bacchae with a male chorus. At first Ribar demurred. Though he had been keen on staging The Bacchae since college, he didn't want Femme Fatale to be pigeonholed as a company that only makes all-male productions. "We came around to it though," he says, describing how a female chorus leader now bosses around a chorus of four men. Femme Fatale has also added two non-speaking female parts to give the role of women a bit more presence on stage."


Gender roles aside, Ribar has always been drawn to plays that have "an impending sense of doom." Though his Bacchae will mostly adhere to the ancient text, Ribar believes it's an all too contemporary tale. "We started rehearsing shortly before Sandy," he says. "And there's a line in the play that goes, 'Truth is horrible; it always comes at the wrong time.' I really grabbed on to that."


Indeed, it's never a good or convenient time to break up, lose your job, or for that matter, experience a hurricane. "Whether or not you believe in God," Ribar says, "you can't deny that there's always mother nature, fate, and bad luck. Something bad could come crashing down on us, and it's never going to be a good time. That's what happens to Pentheus. In his arrogance, he forgets that there is something more powerful---in his case the gods---and this arrogance costs him."


Photo by Hunter Canning