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The Bacchae

A Greek tragedy that has enthralled audiences for 2,400 years hits the stage at UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center Feb. 1. Rest assured, this is a production that no one has seen before. UMD's production of "The Bacchae" is totally high-tech, ...

A Greek tragedy that has enthralled audiences for 2,400 years hits the stage at UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center Feb. 1.
Rest assured, this is a production that no one has seen before.
UMD's production of "The Bacchae" is totally high-tech, using digital technology to create stunning and powerful images that move this tragedy to new levels of understanding.
And that's not all. Justin Rubin, professor of music at UMD, has composed a completely original score for the play, and Kim Nofsinger, assistant professor of dance, has choreographed seven new dances.
The result? It feels like almost a new play, said Bill Payne, director.
"There's so much new material that is being integrated into this piece, it feels like a brand new play," he said. "I want it to be entertaining and visually interesting and engaging so it holds you through the two hours. I think the music community will be interested in the play and so will the arts community. And I think the technology industry would be interested, in addition to regular theater-goers. The play puts forth these universal ideas in a beautiful way that is for everybody."
"The Bacchae" tells the story of Dionysus, a god who has appeared in Thebes, and Pentheus, the king, who refuses to bow down to him. When Dionysus, who is portrayed as an alien from far off galaxies, decides to make the king bow to him, the outcome is spectacular -- and tragic.
Humans have struggled with the issues in this play for thousands of years, Payne said, which is undoubtedly why it has stood the test of time.
"This is a play about these larger powers," Payne said. "Religion doesn't go away. Spirituality doesn't go away. Our desire to control the universe and our environment doesn't go away. We believe that because we have an opposable thumb and an ability to think, we can control things. This play is a reminder that that's a foolish thought."
To get these ideas across and create a multi-layered effect, Payne decided to draw in a number of different disciplines to work on the show. Graphic design students, communication students and theater design students all worked on the project together.
"This is a grand project in terms of the scope of it," he said.
"It's been really exciting," said Catherine Ishino, assistant professor of graphic design who worked with a student team to produce the digital images used in the scenery.
They worked for months on the project, shooting the night sky, sunsets, sunrises and waterfalls in Duluth.
Returning to UMD's state-of-the-art Visualization and Digital Imaging Lab, they began working on creating a virtual video set.
Some of the material is completely computer-generated, Ishino said. Others combine images from a number of sources.
The result is truly spectacular.
"The play opens with a spaceship landing and the god coming down in a beam of light," Payne said. "It couldn't have been done without the class. Essentially, this has been done by a team of 12 people working for three or four months."
The collaboration includes a video of the process itself, Ishino said. Students of Joel Anderson, former news director at KDLH, will produce a documentary of the play's production.
It's been a learning experience for everyone, she said.
"It reflects a real working situation and produces a product," she said. It also has taught everyone about the challenges of collaboration. "You don't always get your own way," she said.
Meanwhile Rubin and Nofsinger faced their own challenges.
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Rubin said he wanted to write music that was geared to the theater audience but also had strong rhythms for the dancers and, he decided to use a synthesizer to help create the illusion of the future.
He also opted for two singers for the chorus and as well as writing a challenging score.
"I didn't want to make it very easy," he said. "The drama isn't easy. It's a very difficult situation psychologically, and I wanted to bring that out in the music. If it was easy music, it wouldn't do service to the play itself."
His compositions use polytonal harmonies, which sopranos Jessica Lind and Marissa Downing have taken in stride.
Nofsinger said he spent a lot of time researching before beginning to choreograph the seven dances in the play.
"Probably the biggest challenge was trying to figure out an approach that would support the story line but not be a direct narrative," he said.
He looked at a lot of traditional Greek choral movement as well as the work of Loie Fuller, who was working in the late 1800s. "She used fabric and costume to create the sensuality the shows required," he said. "I use extra fabric and full, full skirts to establish an open environment that flows."
He also considered the post-modern movement in dance and how it would work with Rubin's score. "I use minimalism and repetition to parallel the development of the music," he said. "The music works beautifully."
If all goes as planned, that well could be the result of this entire production.
"It's such a large palette," Payne said. "There are so many elements here. It's been a wonderful challenge, and I can't wait to put all the pieces together. When you get to work with the best plays of all time, you have to be grateful."
Nofsinger had a caution.
"Come see it early in the run because you may want to see it again," he said.
Joan Farnam is the Budgeteer arts and entertainment editor and can be reached by e-mail at joan.farnam@duluth.com or by phone at 723-1207.

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