nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 21, 2007
Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, the talented musical theatre team whose collaborations in previous seasons have given audiences such gems as Iron Curtain and The Pursuit of Persephone, stumble with their latest offering, The Rockae. Mills and Reichel's modern rock updating of Euripides's The Bacchae (for which you can find a detailed plot synopsis here) is certainly flashy: shirtless, long-haired bohunks wail into the mic, chorus girls gyrate, and the four-piece band thumps away like pros. But, The Rockae ends up being little more than an exercise in style over substance: if Jesus Christ Superstar had a love child with a hoard of 1980s heavy metal videos, this is what it would be.
At first, the show's concept looks as if it might work: what better contemporary embodiment for a god than as a rock star? Dionysus, decked out in black leather pants and blond flowing locks, belts the high notes and stalks the stage like a panther. (He even has a mic stand adorned, Steven Tyler-style, with several colored scarves.)
Then, his three female followers—Lydia, Phrygia, and Aeolia—come out looking like refugee dancers from a Mötley Crüe video circa 1987 (Dionysus's chorus of women, the Bacchae and the Maenads, appear similarly clad later on), and The Rockae shows itself to be what it truly is: musical theatre people attempting to look and sound like rock 'n' rollers. This is a tricky maneuver that usually doesn't work because the folks involved don't have the cocky, freewheeling attitude necessary to pull it off. That is the case with Mills, Reichel, and their cast: they know which technical and cosmetic trappings to put on to make themselves look authentic, but they are unable to make one believe they're the real deal.
This is too bad because there are some talented people here. Mitchell Jarvis makes the most of his turn as Pentheus, the proud and headstrong king who angers Dionysus, and comes closest to replicating rock's wild-eyed swagger. Gordon Stanley, who was pricelessly funny in Prospect's production of Iron Curtain, once again delivers veteran stability as Cadmus, grandfather to both Pentheus and Dionysus. And, Matt DeAngelis, playing a local cowherd, takes full advantage of The Rockae's best song, "High on Cithaeron"—which basically serves the same function as a Messenger speech in Greek drama—and turns it into a solo showcase for himself.
The defining features of Reichel's production are the nine strategically placed microphones that cover the stage. They augment the rock star motif nicely, but the loose mic cords feel like a health hazard for the cast; I kept worrying that someone would trip, get tangled, or knock over a mic stand. It's distracting, and upstages a lot of the action.
For all of The Rockae's surface flash, Mills and Reichel are unable to justify their modern rock update of Euripides's classic tale. What this adaptation adds to the existing story or illuminates about it in today's terms remains as mysterious as why we all thought big hair was cool back in the '80s.