Playwright-director Julia May Jonas has clearly been thinking about Euripides lately. Her ambitious new piece, Evelyn—now playing at the Bushwick Starr—transposes ancient madness to a modern clinic, suggesting that our unruly psyches still chafe at civilized life’s compromises.
In an arid institution, a motley collection of tormented women are learning to stifle restive feelings with talk therapy, craft projects, meds, and carefully managed routines. But the calm ward is quickly carbonated by the arrival of movie star Evelyn Henries (Hannah Heller). Aghast at the idea of being treated just like everyone else, she sets about turning things topsy-turvy. Celebrity fever mutates into cultish mania, as the misfits make Evelyn a screen on which to project their repressed desires. A chameleon-like performer—Evelyn often sounds as if she’s doing an impression of some old movie you can’t quite place—she’s able to be exactly what each patient wants her to be. Mimicking tearful self-discoveries to her shrink, she soon seduces the doc and makes herself hospital boss. Meanwhile, rumors have been circulating about strange doings in the wild woods outside.
Up to this point, Evelyn seems like an arch parody of any number of charismatic-outsider-teaches-humdrum-people-how-to-really-live stories, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Girl Interrupted. But about midway through, you realize that Jonas is doing something richer and stranger: the narrative pattern she’s really following is much older—and eerier. As the inmates are overcome by frenzy, Evelyn shifts into a rewrite of Euripides’ Bacchae, the ultimate tragic fable of repressed energies returning as uncontrollable violence. Here, the magnetic movie actor stands in for the remorseless god who arrives to punish those who refuse his divinity; the rational “safe space” of the institution substitutes for buttoned-down Thebes; the troubled patients—who sing together dissonantly more and more as the play goes on—transform into a chorus of possessed Maenads.
Like The Bacchae, Evelyn culminates with ecstatic dancing and human sacrifice (Jonas’s rituals are New Age-y and druidical). All the primal yearnings and pent-up rage the women have smothered with drugs and therapy surge to the surface, leading to taboo acts of primordial savagery—including an unorthodox late-night snack. The piece ends with a disarmingly plainspoken song, asking each of us to probe our own unknowable depths for signs of buried violence. (An image of cloaked shapes with glowing red eyes reminds us of the hidden wildness in each of us.)
At times, Evelyn struggles to achieve a workable balance between glib pastiche and mythic weirdness. The early sections get a little bogged down in institutional politics and character quirks (we don’t really need to see a scene from the musical one of the patients is writing, as funny as it is). Once Evelyn hijacks a therapy session, adopting a different persona to enthrall each patient, it becomes pretty obvious that an insurrection is in the works—and it takes a while to get there. But the mysterious and gory closing sequences redeem the wait, and the piece’s final questions are as vital as they are unanswerable: “Is violence inside you?” “Do you sometimes think things that you can’t understand?”