At the beginning of Euripides’ The Bacchae, which wowed Greeks in 405 B.C., the god Dionysus returns to the city that, years earlier, had scorned him and denied his divinity. He arrives to crush Thebes, declaring: “The city of Thebes must learn, whether it will or not, that they must succumb to my mysteries.”
A couple millennia on, the director JoAnne Akalaitis returns to the theater that, years earlier, had scorned her. For the first time since her ouster as artistic director in 1993, only 20 months after founder Joseph Papp had named her his successor, Akalaitis will direct a play for the Public Theater—The Bacchae, which begins performances at Shakespeare in the Park’s Delacorte Theater on August 11. The Public’s current artistic director, Oskar Eustis, laughs at the concurrence of plots: “Let’s hope that’s not an analogy that plays out in real life.” Then he adds, “You never know.”
During a recent afternoon rehearsal, Akalaitis does not seem overwhelmed by thoughts of vengeance. Instead, she concentrates on synching a soliloquy by Dionysus’s rival, Pentheus, with Philip Glass’s creepy underscoring. Akalaitis has known Anthony Mackie, the actor playing Pentheus, since his student days. Teasingly, she refers to him as “Mr. Juilliard,” and offers praise and censure in equal measure. Her manner can sometimes tend toward the brusque, but when Mackie flails, she approaches him, bends her head in intimate colloquy, and quietly solves the problem. Mackie and the rest of the cast—which includes New York luminaries such as Joan MacIntosh, André DeShields, and boy wonder Jonathan Groff as Dionysus—regard her with pointed adoration. “We feel really lucky to have someone as adventurous, smart, and passionate as JoAnne,” says Groff. Apparently, that admiration is mutual. In a phone conversation after rehearsal, she says of her actors: “I love them. I love actors. I’m so happy walking in the room and seeing them.”
These may sound like somewhat surprising words from a director renowned for a forbidding intellect and a résumé of highly conceptual productions. Akalaitis, now 72 (though she looks improbably youthful), made her directorial debut 34 years ago, staging Samuel Beckett’s Cascando for Mabou Mines, the experimental company she helped to found. That first production garnered her an Obie Award, and she earned four more for helming plays by Franz Xaver Kroetz and Jean Genet, as well as various self-devised works.
Some of her shows attracted controversy. Beckett condemned her 1984 production of Endgame, which featured African-American actors and a subway-car set. Five years later, Akalaitis again deployed an unconventional setting and nontraditional casting in a production of Cymbeline, leading The New York Times‘s Frank Rich to call it a “travesty” and sneer, “While one can applaud Ms. Akalaitis for casting a black actor as Cloten, doesn’t credibility (and coherence for a hard-pressed audience) demand that his mother also be black?” Once installed as the Public’s artistic director in 1991, she directed a well-received production of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (even Rich liked it) and a version of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck that received mixed, though largely positive, notices. Then, to the surprise of many, the Public’s board fired her in favor of the playwright and director George C. Wolfe. (The Public currently declines to comment on the reasons for Akalaitis’s dismissal.)
The board’s decision affected Akalaitis deeply. For a decade or so, she couldn’t walk past the Lafayette Street theater. “I felt the Public Theater, for me, was one of the sinkholes, like in New Jersey, that people fall into and disappear,” she says. “I thought that would happen to me if I walked by.” Even 16 years on, she doesn’t entirely understand the board’s action. ” ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was a big success,” says Akalaitis. “It has a terrible title, but it was a success, and Woyzeck was a success. And I think we did a musical. I was trying to figure out what was wrong with all this. We were just doing theater.” She dismisses the notion that her work is esoteric, saying, “I’m not against audiences liking things. I love it when audiences like a show.” Akalaitis may simply have been a few years ahead of her time. The aspects of her work that once seemed so contentious—the unexpected settings, the diverse corps, the aspects of collage—have become theatrical routine. And as for the label of her being a “cerebral” director, she counters, “That’s because I’m a woman, and I’m smart. That’s why. That’s all.”
Indeed, a wholly cerebral director wouldn’t find much to attract her to The Bacchae, a play in which Pentheus’ intellect inevitably surrenders to Dionysus’ ecstasies. Akalaitis—who admits to having failed a logic course while earning her B.A. in philosophy at the University of Chicago—found herself attracted to the play’s passionate excess and intricacy. “It’s such a violent, disturbing, upsetting play,” she says. “I thought I should do it.” She has assembled an impressive creative team to help her tackle it, including the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, the dramaturg James Leverett, the choreographer David Neumann, and Glass, her former husband and frequent collaborator. She recalls a recent phone conversation with Glass, in which he called the play “very emotional.” Akalaitis told him, “It is. It’s raw, it’s ruthless, it’s relentless. It sort of gallops toward the inevitable hideous end with a ferociousness that is remarkable to say the least.”
For all the play’s ferocity, Akalaitis sounds remarkably tender about her return to the Public. “It’s wonderful to walk in the door,” she says. “It’s wonderful to go to production meetings with such an incredible production department. It’s wonderful to have a boss like Oskar, who is so smart, so generous, and so brave to be doing this play.” For his part, Eustis—a self-confessed “Mabou Mines groupie” who sat in on rehearsals for Cascando three decades ago—describes Akalaitis as “a genuinely fearless artist.” “JoAnne,” he says, “has been an important person at the Public for 30-some years, and to me, it’s very important that she remain part of the Public’s family for the rest of her career.”
Akalaitis seems willing. In addition to teaching at the Juilliard School and Bard College, she continues to develop new theater pieces, including a play about Sarah Bernhardt, Giacomo Puccini, and Tosca, which has had two workshops at the Public. And next week, when The Bacchae begins previews, New York audiences, like those long ago Thebans, can succumb, once again, to her mysteries.