Naked, Bloody Revelations on Election Night

On election night I was led into a theater where a bunch of actors from Austin, TX were playing characters from the ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae—they were also playing the cast of the 1968 experimental theatre piece Dionysus in 69. And they were also playing themselves.

Then, all of a sudden, these delineations didn’t matter, for everyone’s clothes came off, the actors performed a bloody birth ritual, and soon thereafter I found myself jumping off the shaky wooden scaffolding to dance with the naked cast and my fellow audience members (including the famed choreographer Bill T. Jones) many of whom were stripping down as well.

Dionysus in 69, performed and produced by Austin-based theater company The Rude Mechs, is currently playing at New York Live Arts. The production is a reenactment/recreation of the original 1968 production—which set the groundwork for director Richard Schechner’s work in environmental theatre. The Rude Mechs have used notes on the original production and Brian DePalma’s film version as primary sources in remounting the show as faithfully to the original as possible.

This may all sound like a tedious concept and I was prepared for an experience akin to watching a museum piece. The surprise was how fresh it felt and in the able and audacious hands of The Rude Mechs, this reenactment becomes an examination of how popular theater tends to resist progression.

A brief refresher on Greek mythology: Dionysus, the god of pleasure and wine, was the love child of Zeus and all the loose mortals who slept with him—like if John Lennon had bedded all the flower children during The Summer of Love. The Bacchae is the tragic morality tale of what happens when pleasure and freedom are taken to their limit and false prophets are erected in the name of humankind. Dionysus in 69 spins this myth to antagonize the structure of theater: the nudity, the breaking of the fourth wall and the relentless dropping of character were all shocking in 1968, but what the 2012 reenactment lacks in shock, it makes up for in the discomforting recognition of how taboo this all still is in popular theater.

Stories from the original 1968 production, which was mounted at The Performing Garage in Soho (now home to The Wooster Group), included tales of audience members taking over the show and holding actors hostage. I e-mailed with The Rude Mechs director Shawn Sides and she mentioned that they didn’t expect for contemporary audiences to be as engaged, but were proven wrong.

“Our very favorite story,” Ms. Sides said, “is about the couple that ‘found’ each other during the Total Caress. One of them had come with a different date…they wouldn’t stop humping and rolling around in the middle of the stage for the rest of the play. So the actors had to sort of nudge them off the stage so they could finish the play. The best part of the story is that those two people are still a couple, three years later now.”

No one has yet taken over The Rude Mechs production, but with Schechner’s students at NYU attending the performance, Sides anticipates that it may very well happen during their run at New York Live Arts.

At the election night performance I couldn’t take my eyes off the faces of my fellow audience, many of whom ended up on stage for the orgiastic “puppy pile,” rolling over, fondling and kissing each other for a good fifteen minutes. A young girl, who couldn’t have been older than 18, was game for every mildly lewd act, including heavy petting and making out with the actor playing Dionysus. This involvement isn’t manipulative, as most audience participatory acts tend to feel; but as Mr. Schechner would have it, this is what organically happens when ritual is engaged in a space where the division between performer and spectator is fluid.

Transcendence happens in contemporary theater, but mostly we miss it. Either it happens without our knowing or we show up and we don’t know what for. And so it disappears. This makes me think that the tendency of reviving every show that was ever mounted on Broadway over and over again, in every community theater across America, certainly has a value—but a value that has less to do with a dialogue between spectator and performer and more about the American tradition of the 21st century: the commodification of something that isn’t working that deprives the people of participating, of negotiating the complexities of their rights—our Bacchaen proclivity to excess.

Thomas Graves, playing William Finley playing Dionysus bellowed through the bullhorn as he was carried off stage in the play’s final moments, “A VOTE FOR FINLEY IN ’68 BRINGS DIONYSUS IN ’69.” I left the theater to the news that Barack Obama had been reelected as the 44th president of the United States.

Dionysus in 69, playing at New York Live Arts through November 10th, is a reminder of the great forum, of what we can have as a country if we’re willing to let go of everything we’ve previously held as true. Because what happened in 1969 shouldn’t feel so fresh in 2012.

– Adam R. Burnett

Adam R. Burnett is a writer and theatre director/producer living in Brooklyn.  He is the lead artist of Buran Theatre who most recently finished a national tour of the original work The House of Fitzcarraldo (published by Indie Theatre Now). His new theatre work NIGHTMARES will premiere at The Brick in January 2013.