Dallas — Anyone up for "a decadent Bacchanalian experience set against the glittering and steely backdrop of the City of Dallas"? And who is not? City Dionysia, presented by GIANT Entertainment, is a fancy-dress outdoor arts and music festival "honoring the birth of theater and its patron god Dionysus," according to its producer. It all takes place at the Annette Strauss Square next to the Winspear Opera House.
The new work is part of the Elevator Project, now in its fourth season, which provides performance space within the AT&T Arts District campus for small and emerging Dallas-based performing arts groups.
Festival visitors can enjoy an evening of mask making, choral chanting, dance, music and performance art, culminating with an hour-long adaptation of Euripides' tragedy The Bacchae, written and directed by Ryan Matthieu Smith, the co-artistic director of GIANT Entertainment. Smith, a native of Oak Cliff, co-founded the company with Benjamin Lutz, whom he met several years ago when both were working on a Greek play at the Dallas Theater Center.
TheaterJones talked with Smith about the upcoming event and his adaptation of the famous Greek tragedy.
TheaterJones: In The Bacchae, written in 405 B.C. and produced in Athens, the god Dionysus is angry because his cousin Pentheus, now king of Thebes, denies Dionysus was fathered by Zeus, and is therefore no god, at all. The king is cross because all the Theban women have taken to the mountains in frenzied worship of the handsome god of wine, ritual and ecstasy, where they're suckling wild animals and cavorting drunkenly. The king says his cousin's mother invented the Zeus encounter to explain an embarrassing pregnancy. Dionysus' fury leads to a female revolt that includes beheadings, tearing animals and careless men limb from limb, and all manner of gory pagan violence. How do you adapt such a play for a modern audience?
Ryan Matthieu Smith: We've taken the story and updated it with lots of references to the political and social reality of today. We've also added many pop culture references.
How is The Bacchae integrated into the larger festival GIANT is producing?
he pre-show that starts at 7 p.m. includes several performance pieces in a market atmosphere. There will be wine vendors available and Wolfgang Puck is doing the catering for this Bohemian affair. We start a brawl that brings the play to the attention of spectators. The play begins at 8:30 p.m. and runs about an hour. There will be lawn seating in an area set up for the performance.
Who are the bacchae and how are you presenting them in this production?
The bacchae are the band of women who worship Dionysus. In our production, they are female or female-identifying followers of Dionysus, the god of wine and theater and festivals, the priestesses of the Bacchanalia. We've devised a piece that takes place through spoken word, dance and puppetry, as well as story-telling. Not only are we including the story of a mother who attacks her own son, who is disguised as a woman, but we're telling the story on Mother's Day weekend. (Laughs.)
Any particular reason you chose The Bacchae for the festival production?
I think the play relates directly to our time. It deals with two opposing forces. One force chooses to eradicate and control a section of society. Another wants to express themselves through their own divinity and religious beliefs. The play is about learning to live authentically. The women are high on freedom; they're out to create their own sexual and religious freedom.
What do you want your audience to take away from this festival and play?
There is no specific moral to the story, other than loving yourself. The greatest message of all is just to love yourself. That's what the women go to the mountains to do. Everyone is going to leave with their own experience. This is just a great place to let your hair down, to celebrate and dive right into yourself for this festive evening. We want to evoke life, to honor origins and authentic living.
Anything else you'd like to say about the show?
I've been enthralled by the whole AT&T Elevator Project team that has helped us. To have this kind of support has been immensely fantastic. It's so great to be able to focus on the art aspects. They took care of the space, the box office, the marketing.
I have to ask, what if it rains?
RMS: I know rain is in the forecast for the weekend, and I think a thunderstorm would be a perfect match. (Laughs.) Part of the experience is being in the elements, and should it rain, then we will definitely make it a part of what we're doing. We're prepared to party, either way.