The Bacchae (***3/4) -- After a meteoric rise to Broadway A-list status on the strength of star turns in Spring Awakening and last summer's outdoor revival of Hair, Jonathan Groff has taken some heat for the self-possessed mildness he brings to the volatile wine god, Dionysus. Indeed, when this Bacchus rages outdoors in Central Park, he is no more threatening than a handsome teen running for president delivering his campaign speech at a high school assembly.
Altogether spot-on, I say. Dionysus' resemblance to Jesus makes him all the more terrifying when the punishment he metes out to disbelievers overruns all bounds of rationality and justice. Of all the ancient dramatists, Euripides' universe is closest to our own: awesome in its intoxicating beauty, appalling in its capricious destructive force, and mocking our impotence.
Dionysus doesn't roar because he's a god, not the Big Bad Wolf. Similarly, director Joanne Akalaitis has solid ideas on updating the Greek Chorus for modern eyes, reveling in the Delacorte's attractive amphitheater and in the ancient theater ritual -- which originated 2500 years ago as annual celebrations of Dionysus and his mythical rebirth. The ritual authenticity is enhanced by a fresh, primal score from Philip Glass, much of it set to the choral speeches. So these Bacchae are a real chorus!
Dionysus' adversary, King Pentheus of Thebes, is both outnumbered and overmatched. Anthony Mackie was faced with the compound challenges of sustaining his pigheaded skepticism in the face of universal opposition and leaving a sufficiently positive impression to make us sorrow in the wake of his horrific death. It does help that Dionysus humiliates Pentheus before he's savaged, tricking him into dressing up as a woman, and Mackie minces adorably in rouge and high heels.
The king's mom, once a denigrator of Dionysus, becomes a bacchante when he returns to Thebes and has the privilege of ripping off Pentheus' head when he witnesses their sacred rites. She thinks she has bagged a lion before she emerges from her ecstatic trance and discovers the bloody truth in her hands. The horrors escalate from there, and Joan MacIntosh feasts unforgettably on the alarm and the grieving as Agave. [Closed on Aug. 30]
After Luke & When I Was God (***1/2) -- These two 2005 one-acts by Cónal Creedon are getting wonderful productions at the Irish Repertory Theatre, with Gary Gregg and Michael Mellamphry trading barbs in both halves of the twinbill. In When I Was God, Mellamphry stars as a soccer referee in his final match, with Gregg splitting time between the TV announcer and the ref's dad, a staunch patriot who sees soccer as a sissy imperialist game imposed by the British and prods his son into the manly native sport of hurling.
The story of the proud ref's misadventures in hurling, his ill-starred dalliance with table tennis, and his lordly sovereignty on the soccer pitch are all succulent treats, but After Luke, modeled on the biblical story of The Prodigal Son, is an instant classic. Here Mellamphry plays the wastrel Maneen while Greg is the elder brother, a dogged mechanic who wants no part of Maneen's get-rich schemes.
Colin Lane joins the fun as the sullen, bumbling Dadda, striving to keep his "chalk and cheese" sons from killing each other. Dubious toward Maneen's entrepreneurial designs, Dadda mostly remains oblivious toward the prodigal's manipulativeness -- and a vicious streak that nearly extends into Martin McDonough territory.
I hadn't laughed this heartily in a theater since... The Toxic Avenger the previous week. Mellamphry is brilliant, and Gregg is amazing. [Through Sept. 27]
Toxic Avenger (***1/4) -- For awhile, Joe DiPietro's spoof of the sci-fi horror flick was funnier than Evil Dead: The Musical. But then Melvin Ferd the Third, that most ungainly nerd of Tromaville, New Jersey, is dipped into a vat of toxic waste by the two town bullies, acting on orders of the corrupt Mayor Babs Belgoody.
What emerges from that chemical sludge wreaks satisfying vengeance on the thugs, but the comedy is scarred. The prosthetic mask designed by John Dods for the Toxic Avenger -- nicknamed "Toxie" by his blind librarian paramour -- doesn't allow actor Nick Cordero nearly the same range of expression we enjoyed when he was the endearingly ugly, pathologically shy Melvin. Director John Rando adds to the irritation, decreeing that Toxie's involuntary roar should be amplified to the max.
So the comedy burden shifts to Nancy Opel, who piles on the bitchiness as Mayor Babs, and Diana DeGarmo, who proves to be a surprisingly slutty librarian when cloistered with a repulsive hero she cannot see. Make no mistake, both these comediennes -- and Cordero -- perform at a higher plateau than the cast I saw at the same New Stages venue in Evil Dead less than three years ago. So do supporting players Jonathan Root and Demond Green, performing as a multitude of bit parts listed as White Dude and Black Dude.