Something caught our eye among the experimental, unusual, and low-budget plays that comprise the Ice Factory Festival, a spotlight of “the most exciting downtown companies” that starts today. As the name implies, Karaoke Bacchae is a take on Euripides’ classic tragedy, The Bacchae. This reimagining takes place not in ancient Greece, but in a karaoke bar during the Stanley Cup. And instead of witnessing a fleshy Dionysus blob around in a flowing robe, we’re treated to an appropriately shirtless Iggy Pop (well, an actor playing Iggy Pop, at least) as a not-too-far-fetched stand-in for the party god. We just had to speak with playwright and director Jesse Freedman (co-founder of the production company, Meta-Phys Ed.) about his absurdist punk take on classical Greek theater.
The play is called Karaoke Bacchae, it’s an adaptation of the Euripides Greek tragedy, The Bacchae. Ours is set in a sports bar on what’s usually karaoke night during the Stanley Cup. So karaoke night is cancelled and Dionysus comes to the bar with a small army of drunken sorority girls to take over and reinstitute karaoke night. And the whole show happens under a stream of karaoke tracks.
The text is pulled from the classical Euripides as well as shit we found on the internet. There’s a conversation my friend from elementary school and I had about The Bacchae after we got really drunk and we do transcripts from that too. And the project started really as simply as I was probably reading The Bacchae, or thinking about The Bacchae, and was in a karaoke bar and thought, ‘Huh, it would be really interesting to just go up there and do The Bacchae instead of karaoke.’
It kind of just snowballed from there. I started doing experiments, starting with the first song, and workshopped it and it really just became this entire piece. I was talking to Robert Lyons [organizer and creative director of Ice Factory Festival] and I pitched it to the festival last year and he said, ‘It sounds really interesting.’ The show wasn’t ready yet, so I kept on messing with it and now it’s Karaoke Bacchae.
The story is basically the same. The owner of the bar is King [Pentheus] of Thebes and Dionysus comes to the bar in the body of Iggy Pop and causes a frenzy. In that way, the story is actually pretty faithful to the original, but all of the text is different and the context is different too, because it’s in a bar. But the randomness of karaoke and the chaos and randomness of The Bacchae seemed to be a really natural and organic mesh. Because that’s what happens with karaoke and in the play, everything just goes haywire.
There’s one character Tiresias, he speaks texts from the original Euripides. He’s always announcing, ‘This is The Bacchae!’ to the point where it’s a bit of a joke and totally absurd. Like as if people are trying to remember, ‘What is this play about?’ Because even if you read the play, it’s very hard to figure out what’s going on, that’s the nature of these plays.
These Greek tragedies were the religion and history of these people and of ancient Greece being performed on stage. So they were stories that people were familiar with and heard over and over again. So it would be sort of like going to see The Passion if that was your narrative or the exodus from Egypt, Adam and Eve, or like George Washington’s childhood. It’s not really our contemporary American history or at least we don’t identify it as such, for many good reasons. Because of that, the story does get a little bit confusing. We’re always there on stage trying to figure out what the hell is going on, and that’s all part of the game.
There’s this great interview with Iggy Pop on The Tom Snyder Show back from the late ‘70s or something and this was after he had cleaned up a lot. And Tom Synder is this real clean-cut talk show host, but he’s real friendly and he knows how to befriend people. He’s not confrontational. And Iggy does this real awesome set and he sits down and he’s out of breath and he cut his lip on the microphone so he’s bleeding. And Tom is asking him questions about rock n’ roll and this new kind of music that Iggy brought about.
And Iggy starts talking about his act when he used to cut himself on stage and throw up on the audience and it’s a tender moment. That whole interview is transcribed and put in the play, because it’s such a beautiful and tender moment when he tried to explain these experiences of performing rock n roll and the qualities that are associated with it and what that performance is. He says it’s Dionysian– well, maybe he says it’s ‘Dionysiac’ — I don’t remember exactly what it was — but I think he made up his own little word for ‘Dionysian.’
But Iggy explains that his performance, his work on stage – he’s all worked up and pumped up and juiced on adrenaline – he says his performance is Dionysian. And he explains to Tom Snyder the relationship between the Dionysian and Apollonian are different principles and different spirits. And he does a great job when he describes that the Dionysian cult was full of eventful parades with fire and the Apollonian is just a statue that will be there forever.
Oh yeah, I love Iggy Pop and the Stooges. They make me feel good. I think he’s really funny. Thank you for bringing this up, because in addition to being this punk rock legend who started out with this massive, self-destructive attitude, he also has a nice little born-again narrative with the whole Lust For Life thing where he cleaned up and got healthy.
I think that’s appealing, that story of rebirth and renewal. There’s a spiritual message in there, and it’s coming from an unlikely place. I remember when I was about 16 years old, I had just discovered punk rock, and I was like falling asleep in high school, and falling asleep in life really. I was just trying to wake up and punk rock was real helpful, so I appreciated that.
And then I heard great stories from a theater mentor, we used to go out and do theater in public schools with at-risk kids– not that I wasn’t any less at-risk than anybody else. And he told me a story, he was living in Redondo Beach in the ‘70s and he went to a coffee shop in the middle of the day and there was a guy in the back, a mystery guest who had a paper bag on his head with eye holes cut out, and everybody knew it was Iggy Pop because he wasn’t wearing a shirt. And if you don’t recognize Iggy’s face, you recognize his chest.
My friend had sat down next to this mystery guest and the mystery guest put his hand on my friend’s thigh and kept it there for an hour. So it was stories like that, those kinds of antics and theatrics that I thought were just… they made an impression and they were exciting, both because of the energy and the raw power behind it, but also because of that moment in punk and also because it’s so performative. It makes for really interesting performance. And so, if you’re looking for someone to be Dionysus on stage, I think it’s hilarious for Dionysus to occupy the body of Iggy Pop.
Meta- Phys -Ed is a collaboration between myself and Bronwen Mullen who is a playwright, composer, and a student at Jewish Theological Seminary, she’s training to be a conservative rabbi. Our work is an investigation of the relationship between spirituality and art, which for us is inseparable.
We just make things because of the way we live our lives and who are and the things we talk about. The work just happens to be about that stuff. So when we were trying to see, does this play work for our company, it’s like, well yeah. We do a lot of work hybridizing sacred texts and The Bacchae is just that, it’s a play about gods walking around on Earth. So that was a very unusual choice for us, because it’s usually like an opera from Talmudic texts about dreams. This was an unusual leap, but it was totally appropriate at the same time.
Ice Factory Festival takes place June 24 through August 8 at the New Ohio Theatre in West Village. Karaoke Bacchae will be staged July 22nd through July 25th at 7 pm each night. Tickets are $15 and $18 and can be purchase online.