A fresh take on ancient Greek

The Brandeis Theater Department production of “The Bacchae” runs from April 11 to 14 in Spingold Theater Center

Cameron Anderson, Dmitry Troyanovsky and Joel Christensen sit in theater seats with ancient greek bustsPhoto/Mike Lovett

Brandeis professors Cameron Anderson, Dmitry Troyanovsky and Joel Christensen.

When Associate Professor of Theater Arts Dmitry Troyanovsky ’98 and Associate Professor of Classical Studies Joel Christensen ’01 sought to collaborate on a production of “The Bacchae” they wanted to create something fresh and new. No small feat for a 2,400-year-old story.

"Avoiding clichés was important. I wasn't interested in the masks, tunics, stentorian voices, chanting," Troyanovsky said. "I wanted something that would move to the rhythms of contemporary life. From the first time I met with Joel, we were on the same page.”

A new translation by Christensen is the basis of the production, which features modernized choreography and wardrobes. Like most Greek tragedies, the Bacchae includes hymns typically performed by a chorus. These sections of the original text were translated by Christensen and then converted to original songs by lyricist Stephanie Fleischmann and composer Daniel Kluger, who also created arrangements for the new Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” Scenic design was overseen by Assistant Professor of Theater Arts Cameron Anderson.

"Working closely with Dmitry and Stephanie was different from anything I've ever done,” Christensen said. “I'm a text person and they are coming at it from a totally different perspective."

Along with an all-student cast, undergraduates also played key roles in the production process. Sophia Grandsard '20 worked with Christensen on modernizing the text and Yair Koas ’19 served as a dramaturg on the show for his senior thesis. 

Although they attended Brandeis at the same time as undergraduates, Troyanovsky and Christensen didn’t get to know each other until 2017, when they first discussed the idea of collaborating on a play from the classical period. They eventually settled on “The Bacchae” because it includes themes of political tyranny and gender issues that are particularly relevant today. It tells the story of the Greek god Dionysus as he travels to Thebes to clear his mother’s name. His arrival disrupts the order of the city-state, sending Theban women into the frenzied worship of a new god. Written by Euripides, the story has darkness and gore, unexpected humor, and elements of the absurd.

“It was an avant-garde play in its day,” Troyanovsky said. “We wanted a translation that would reflect that."

Modern theater productions of Greek tragedies have taken on certain elements that have become viewed as traditional – like the aforementioned masks, robes and chanting, as well as limited movement on stage. But this is likely very different from the way they were originally performed, according to Christensen. He imagines the productions, performed in open air stadiums in front of thousands of people as part of competitions, may have felt something like a cross between Bollywood film, major sporting event and rock concert.

"People try to put on Greek tragedies the way they think they were performed. In reality, we really know comparatively little about how they were performed," he said. "Dmitry and I really saw eye to eye on this. I am skeptical of the whole idea of an 'authentic performance.'"

For the Brandeis production, Christensen started by making a direct translation of the text from ancient Greek to English. Then he set about removing language or references that wouldn't connect with a modern audience, like names of local Theban rivers and ritual objects from the era.

"We wanted something not quite colloquial but closer to a vernacular people could relate with,” he said.

The translation was revised throughout the production process, and Christensen’s expertise informed many of Troyanovsky’s directorial decisions, he said.

“Joel has such incredible knowledge of the play, the myths and the history of ancient Greece. He shared a wealth of research with me and the rest of the team,” Troyanovsky said. “The ability to shape the translation around the concept and vision of a particular production is a very unique experience.”

'The Bacchae' runs from April 11 to 14. Tickets are available online or at the Shapiro Campus Center box office, 781-736-3400.

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