In Greek myth, the cornucopia is a magical ram’s horn that produces an endless flow of delicious, nourishing things; kind of like the collective imagination of The Quasimondo theater company. The resourceful troupe’s latest piece, Bacchanalia, is a lyrical romp through Euripedes’ The Bacchae, Ovid’s Metamorphosis—and a whole bunch of other stuff. Half sword-and-sandal epic, half graduate thesis, this intelligent, funny performance is truly cornucopian. The Quasimondo ensemble creates their shows from scratch; starting with a seed idea, they improvise and jam for a couple of weeks, then develop scripts, write songs, make costumes and masks. In six weeks they have a show that’s less a play than “play” itself; vignettes linked by poetic logic rather than narrative.
Nobody in prosaic Milwaukee does anything like this; the closest we have, the veteran avant-garde Theatre Gigante, takes a formalistic approach to real-life issues; Quasimondo sails more dreamlike oceans. Their style is for people with a high tolerance for ambiguity, and sometimes their shows stagger under the weight of their own ambition. But with the direction of Euro-trained Brian Rott and Jessi Miller, the company seems to be finding their way: Bacchanalia is their most polished, coherent show seen by this writer yet.
As you enter the theater space, which has been crafted into a workable Greek amphitheater, the goatish whine of the oud plays ritualistic music; veiled handmaidens offer you plates of hummus and olives, pita bread and olive oil. The show begins: a boisterous gaggle of bearded young men in togas rush the stage, verbally sparring in a re-creation of the Athenian academy. In two minutes they’ve effortlessly posed a perfect snapshot of patriarchal Bronze-Age Greece.
The more you know about classical Greece, the more you’re likely to appreciate some of the references, but even if your knowledge of mythology comes from Clash of the Titans, you can get caught up in the high adventure and lusty antics of the gods and heroes portrayed here. After a hilariously apt sketch of the major Greek philosophers, the show launches into The Bacchae, with uptight King Pentheus (admirably played by a life-sized puppet) raging against the wild women worshipers of Dionysus. Orgiastic revelry ensues, leading into an entertaining re-telling of the birth of the demigods and deeds of the heroes. Lusty Zeus and his understandably grumpy wife Hera oversee many episodes of the Father of the gods’ serial seductions of assorted maidens, who, it being patriarchal mythology, seem mostly thrilled for the honor of receiving godly seed. This is the strongest section of the three-hour, two-intermission show; the demands telling some dozen stories focuses the troupe’s attention wonderfully. We see Persephone abducted by Hades, Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, Theseus slaying the Minotaur the divine conceptions of Apollo and Bacchus/Dionysus, and more. Each tale is told with simple means and lyrical stage poetry. The original score by Bill Webb, Thomas Moore, and Ben Yela sets a tone both ceremonial and humorous, including a rousing production number entitled “It’s good to be a god.” It’s a pity the recurrent drunkenness and intercourse make the show unsuitable for minors, because kids would love Bacchanalia’s vivid visual storytelling; when Theseus enters the labyrinth, the cast moves screens to create a dynamic, disorienting maze.
The middle part of the show takes a darker turn; the gods’ love is as likely to be rape as seduction, and we learn the tragic story of Medusa, cursed by jealous Artemis for loving the wrong guy. Its also the most abstract and dancey section, and you might find yourself sometimes wondering exactly what the beautiful sights and sounds are supposed to mean. Unexpectedly, we see a re-enactment of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” with a grumpy monk railing against pagan sensuality; but Bacchus makes an appearance at the table, reminding us that the Nazarene was hardly the first son of god to celebrate death and rebirth with the sacrament of wine.
The third section of this marathon performance (where we’re treated to refreshing snacks of fruit and yogurt) brings the ancient stories home: The Bacchae story concludes; the philosophers don suit jackets and read from modern thinkers from Artaud to Nietzsche; the latter dies, and, in a gorgeous coup de theatre, finds himself ferried across the river Styx (which makes perfect sense, if you’ve read The Birth of Tragedy). The show’s final, wordless vignette depicts smartly-dressed contemporary people smoking and drinking in a cafe; one of them is texting from her smartphone. Ironic and detached they seem wistful, as if, with all their sophistication, they somehow miss the dangerous ecstasy of the old gods.
This is the sort of thing one could expect to see in London, or Barcelona, but not Milwaukee. Yes, the cast comes from a wide range of performing experience, and yes, the show could easily stand some cutting and tightening. But it is simply amazing that a group of young artists can whip up such a complex, thoughtful, funny, sensitive, and beautiful show in six weeks’ time. Surely, the gods have smiled upon the Quasimondo!
Written and Directed by Brian Rott and Jessi Miller
Original Score by Bill Webb, Thomas Moore, and Ben Yela
Costume Design by Amanda Tollefson
Set Design by Kyle Tikovitsch
Mask Design by Katie Jessie
Prop Design by Chase Vreeland
Choreographed by Simon Andreas Eichinger, Liz Faraglia, Chris MacGregor, Jessi Miller, Jenni Reinke and Brian Rott.
Thursday, May 2nd @ 8PM
Friday, May 3rd @ 8PM
Saturday, May 4th @ 8PM
The Milwaukee Fortress
100 E. Pleasant St
$17 General Admission
Admission includes hor d’ouevres and libations
Warning: Mature content. May not be suitable for audiences under the age of 15.