The Bacchae and The Tooth of Crime

by John Stoltenberg

Cockfights are not my cup of tea—neither in life nor in art. Which is why most action movies leave me cold. I’m just not into watching pumped up hunks with balls-out blunderbluster go mano-a-mano. That master plot is so tired.

But two productions now in repertory at Artisphere—Euripides’ The Bacchae and Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime—offer an intriguingly subversive twist on the dueling-dudes drama.

The plays were written some 2,400 years apart. I saw the two WSC Avant Bard productions within a week. And then an odd thing happened: They began interacting in my head.

On the surface, they’re both plays with music. But not just with music: driven by music. The Bacchae score, composed for this production by Mariano Vales, is gorgeously eclectic—some of the finest music for theater I’ve ever heard. The Tooth of Crime score was written at Shepard’s behest by T. Bone Burnett, and it could easily pass for a hard-rock set at the 9:30 Club.

What struck me, though, was how these paired productions treat their thematic similitude. Both feature a young upstart hero of ambiguous sexuality who arrives auspiciously, unnerves and challenges a sexually armored big shot, then proceeds to bring the macho honcho down.

In The Bacchae, it’s the character of Dionysus who comes to town (Thebes) to have his way and hold sway. As delicately but disarmingly portrayed by Jeremy Pace (channeling Prince and David Bowie), Dionysus’ androgynous, pansexual persona is what inspires pandemonium in his female fans and propels the action. When Dionysus dupes his butch nemesis, Pentheus (Elliott Kashner), into donning drag—in order to visit the fervid fanbase unharmed (spoiler alert: he gets very harmed)—Dionysus’ wilely strategem is all the more shocking because it’s played so fey.

In The Tooth of Crime, it’s the character of Crow who appears at the top of Act Two to topple the presumptive rock star Hoss. Playwright Sam Shepard—America’s poet laureate on the angst of damaged men—clearly intended the sparring between Hoss and Crow to be a verbal smackdown between two studs. In the Shepard oeuvre, there are no pansies or poofters. And in his early plays especially, there’s typically but one part for a woman—written for his girlfriend du jour. So in rereading the sexual politics of this text, director Kathleen Akerley has achieved a stunning reinterpretation. For one thing, Hoss, played by John Tweel, is portrayed as a regular joe. No testosterone on overdrive. Just a fella who sings effin’ great songs. And Becky, as played by Jennifer J. Hopkins, has real presence onstage; she’s not just Hoss’s hookup. But it is Tom Carman’s beguiling portrayal of Crow that really sends Shepard’s gender scheme round the bend. From the moment Crow appears—dandylike, dancerly (he seems never to stop moving)—you know a change is gonna come. And Hoss, with his stoic, straight-up stance, doesn’t stand a chance.

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