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What price freedom?
Euripides’ The Bacchae is a savage tale of mothers murdering children mistook for beasts, orgiastic pleasure and religious ecstasy that comes at the cost of the ramparts of civilization. The Dionysius that leads the women of Thebes into madness is a terrifying figure: one whose worship can bring a whole city down.
But savagery is a form of liberation in theatre group The Syndicate’s’s slick Civility!, now playing through January 18 at The Brick Theater in East Williamsburg, a devised reimagining of The Bacchae. For the women that pass their days in book club, performing femininity by rote, the mysterious – and androgynous – stranger that gradually kindles their madness, Dionysius (who turns up at the book club reading Djuna Barnes) offers freedom from a life of order, safety, and necessary repression. The worship of Dionysius, in Civility! is about the freedom of the female body: to experience pleasure, to be itself, to “look good”, as the women say of one of Dionysius’s first followers. This way lies not madness, Civility! sometimes seems to suggest, but the female orgasm.
The problem with such a take on liberation, though, is that it removes much of the dramatic tension from the play. It seems almost too obvious that the members of the book club – all characterized in a nebulous chorus-fashion as the Theban equivalent of Desperate Housewives” – should be unsatisfied: their dissatisfaction feels like easy deck-stacking on the part of the Syndicate. It feels taken for granted that we, as audience members in a Brooklyn black box theater, should naturally assume that the life of a suburban housewife is inherently mundane and unsatisfying (and, concordantly, that we should pat ourselves on the back for taking the first step toward Dionysian liberation by being the sort of person who watches plays in Brooklyn black box spaces). By grounding its drama so completely in the trope of the “bored housewife”, Civility risks feeling all too civil to its audience: mocking the kind of people unlikely to be attending experimental theatre in Williamsburg, while carefully avoiding challenging the sensibilities of those that do. For all the moralizing of town leader Pentheus about civilization versus chaos: the stakes never feel that high. Of course, Civility! seems to say, Dionysius isn’t really that dangerous after all.
But, without that sense of danger, Dionysius and Civility! can start to feel one-note: as if it’s trying to tell its audience too much we already know. It’s convincing as a call to arms, but less so as a drama about two equally powerful opposing forces in the soul of (wo)man.
This is a shame, as the cast is as a whole very talented. The physical sequences are well-choreographed: a scene where a Messenger (Andrea Tzvetkov, standing out in a smaller role) regales her listeners with tales of Dionysian frenzy comes closest to a sense of chaos. The cast is dynamic; their chemistry is consistently palpable. And Janouke Goosen, as Pentheus’s mother, Agave, brings gravitas and a real sense of the tragic to her role. When she cradles the clothing of the son she has inadvertently murdered in her frenzy, we at last get a real glimpse of the cost of chaos.
This is quickly glossed over, though – as if lingering too long on Agave’s pain would make us doubt the Dionysian mission of free thought and free love. But it has the opposite effect: making such a mission cheap. The most important things, after all, are often the hardest won.
Civility is playing at The Brick Theatre on Metropolitan Avenue Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays until January 17.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.