I came of age in experimental theater. Ellen Stewart the doyen of LaMama dragged me, in 1972 at 21, to see Philip Glass in concert under one of futurist Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, perched on a hillside in Spoleto Italy. Stewart crooned,“ Baby you have to hear this cause Phil is another LaMama baby, just like you.”
After so many decades, there are many ageing experimentalists walking among us, but the cream of the crop have their talents shining in Central Park in a production of Euripides tragedy, The Bacchae. Greek drama is a staple of downtown experimentalism, Andre Serban, Ruth Maleczech, Richard Schechner, Lee Breuer, and Liz Le Compte all gave us multiple versions of Greek myths gone wild, but this summer’s production features many of the artists who dedicated their lives to this ephemeral craft of creating experimental work that would move audiences to visceral joy, terror and amazement.
The likes of Andre De Shields, yes of The Wiz but also countless works downtown were on display as Tieresis auguring in sequins and tearing at our souls. Karen Kandel heads the chorus with such superb marksmanship that the other eleven Bacchanalians follow pitch perfect. Kandel was in an early production of Andre Serban’s Trilogy and is now co-director of downtown’s lauded Mabou Mines. George Bartenieff, one of the founders of the funky, Theater for the New City, think political, shoestring, street theater regaling city streets for decades; he is now explosive as the grandfather of the murdered young king Pentheus. And as an aside, although not one of the cadre of early experimentalists, Anthony Mackie is a young star as Penteus.
The murderer of Pentheus is none other than the incredible, ever incandescent Joan Macintosh. I whispered to my daughter 24, before Macintosh took the stage that she was about to see one of the truly great actors of our time. A women, who if she had not been married to experimentalist, founder of the Performance Group Richard Schechner and stared in all his “environmental theater” productions might have been as well known as Meryl Streep. Her performance raging as a woman in ecstasy who unknowingly kills her son, thinking he was a wild beast is transformative on the lip of John Conklin’s glorious river bound Delacourt stage.
And of course the Queen and King of this ensemble work are the director Joanne Akalaitis, and composer Philip Glass; both 72. Akalaitis was artistic director of the Public Theater for a scant two years after the death of founder Joseph Papp. Glass and Akalaitis were married back in the day for fifteen years, but have been working together for more than forty years. And kudos to longevity and dedication because they still create theatrical miracles like The Bacchae.
I know that if I were a more astute student of the genealogy of Downtown Theater, I could pull more strings of connectivity together, but if my own scant personal history yields this much imagine the wealth lying beneath the surface which is brought to light in this revelatory production. And as ever, all for free beneath the stars, wafted by summer breezes and serenaded by crickets.