Lincoln Center: Cumming Home- Headfirst

Classic Arts Features   Lincoln Center: Cumming Home- Headfirst
 
As part of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival, Alan Cumming will star as Dionysus in The Bacchae beginning July 2 .

"LOCAL BOY MAKES ENTRANCE" the headline could have trumpeted last August when Alan Cumming set foot on a Scottish stage for the first time in 16 years to open the Edinburgh Festival with the National Theatre of Scotland's production of The Bacchae.

As Dionysus, that overheated hedonist and god of good times, he arrives in a dazzling deus ex machina that befits a deity descending from Heaven.

"It's a rock-star entrance," Cumming understates. "I'm handcuffed, dangling upside down by my ankles from the flies way, way at the top of the theatre‹and I'm wearing a kilt."

Old rumors about kilts are true, adds the cheeky lad.

Under John Tiffany's direction, Cumming will be pulling that same stunt again‹13 times (July 2-13)‹in a North American premiere at the Rose Theatre as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2008. Most of the mortals on hand will be the original Edinburgh cast, which went on to play a week in Glasgow and a month in London.

"The whole experience of it‹of going back to Scotland‹was wonderful," Cumming confesses. "It felt great, but there was a lot of pressure on me. The company is new, it was opening the international festival‹the Alan Comes Home thing just added to the pressure.

"Happily, we were warmly embraced by everybody. I saw people that I had not seen since drama school, and I worked with actors that I worked with 20 years ago. It was great."

Tiffany, 36, associate director of new writing for the National Theatre of Scotland, personally pitched Dionysus to Cumming, who replied with a fast and emphatic "Yes!"

That enthusiastic response has been echoed several times over by critics, some of whom have said the 43-year-old actor is doing "a role he was born to play." Certainly, the pansexual persona that Cumming has cultivated for himself in the decade since his Tony-winning performance of Cabaret's Emcee dovetails neatly into his portrayal of the androgynous, charismatic offspring of Zeus that Euripides created in 405 B.C.

"I don't consciously think I want to be controversial or different or have no boundaries," he insists, "but I think I'm very free in my choices. Theoretically, everyone should be able to do everything. I like that I jump around and do different parts. You go through theatre in your life and find what you need. Certain things come to you, and you glow."

David Greig's adaptation, from Ian Ruffell's translation, gives the Greek tragedy a thorough update‹replete with additional (and literal) song-and-dance composed by Tim Sutton.

As they tell it, Dionysus has returned to earth in human form to be accepted as a god by his mortal family, the House of Cadmus‹particularly his rigid, change-resisting, order-bound cousin, Pentheus, the King of Thebes. But acceptance is denied Dionysus because of his human contamination, so his entourage of female worshippers (gussied up here as gospel singers) go on a cattle-shredding rampage, and it's the devil to pay. When the whole set goes up in flames, Cumming turns to the audience and asks, "Too much?"

"That line was my idea," beams Tiffany, who says he was led there by his anything-goes, free-wheeling direction. "When I gave the line to Alan, I said, 'This is one of the biggest gifts I'm ever going to give you, and I'm going to allow you to say it.' The thing is, it really works in terms of the relationship that Alan has developed with the audience."

Tiffany studied the classics at Glasgow University, but his sharp left turn into Associate Director: New Work of the National Theatre of Scotland put a dizzy spin on his formal training. "I'm allergic to the way Greek tragedies are usually done," he confesses. "When we are very loyal to the mechanisms of Greek tragedy‹which, let's be honest, is 3,000 years old now‹I don't think they really connect with us. I've studied the relationship between the classics and the audience just to see how that might be able to work now."

He is a great believer in giving the classics a sound shaking. "Well, I think that's what we should do with all old plays," he contends. "I don't get any joy out of seeing faithful classic productions of plays. What's the point of doing anything unless it's urgent? That's my feeling‹unless we're doing productions of old plays as archeological exercises, in a museum kind of way. I find them boring because I think theatre is contemporary, and the only way you will connect with large audiences is if you make it urgent and relevant.

"The Bacchae was always the tragedy that interested me the most because it was very funny in addition to being very tragic. That was Euripides' great innovation as a tragedian: He brought comedy into it and still made it be cohesive as a piece of theatre.

"We haven't jazzed it up. From the literal translation, what David Greig saw was that there was great humor in the original. He hasn't camped it up, although everyone will think he has. If anything, he has camped it down. He said the original is outrageous.

"Another thing I love about The Bacchae is its sense of dynamism and energy. It's about escape and release and how we need to embrace our need to let go and have that kind of change between the feminine and the masculine. That really interests me. We have them."


Harry Haun is a longtime Playbill contributor and author of two books on film, The Movie Quote Book and The Cinematic Century.

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