“The Rockae” by Peter Mills

Indiana University’s Department of Theatre and Drama continues in their commitment to developing musical theatre this summer with a production of "The Rockae".

The Rockae
Music and lyrics by Peter Mills
Adapted by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel
From Euripides The Bacchae

Indiana University’s Department of Theatre and Drama continues in their commitment to developing musical theatre this summer with a production of The Rockae,  a rock musical based on Euripides tragedy The Bacchae. The music and lyrics are by Peter Mills and the adaptation is by Mills and Cara Reichel.

The musical sticks closely to the original. Dionysus the god of joyous wild abandon played and sung with power that is both vigorously masculine and at the same time fey by guest Devin Ilaw and his followers come out of the East. They arrive at Thebes which is ruled by the stiffly Apollonian King Pentheus. Pentheus, guest Nehal Joshi, rigidly denies the real emotions that Dionysus represents.

Dionysus and his followers entrance the women of Thebes including Pentheus’s mother Agava, played by guest Bridget Beirne. They lead them off to wild revelry on Mount Cithaeron. Even King Pentheus’s father, Cadmus, delightfully played by guest Gordon Stanley, is caught up in the festive atmosphere. He tries to explain to his son that life needs to have a balance between the emotional and the rational, but King Pentheus is not hearing of it.

Despite Dionysus offer to bring the women and their revelry back to Thebes, the King is obdurate. Although he’s curious, he’s rigidly furious and his doom is sealed.

Dionysus persuades him to disguise himself in women’s clothes so that he can observe the wild rites on the mountain. It’s interesting that a part of King Pentheus that was hidden now seems to come alive as he puts on a wig and a dress.

On the mountain as the King spies on the women, Dionysus calls out to reveal him and the women gather around and literally tear him apart. The most vicious of all is Pentheus’ mother Agava. Returning to Thebes with the trophy of the hunt, they are intercepted by Cadmus, who finally gets Agava to see what she has done. In what can be a supremely pitiful moment, she endeavors to put her son back together.

This production certainly makes a case casting the Euripides work in a heavy metal rock style musical. We routinely hear of rock gods, and the flying locks, the bare chest, the leather pant and the posturing by Devin Ilaw were plenty Dionysian. Equally impressive in opposition was the hard edge of the tragically stiffly egotistical Pentheus of Nehal Joshi.

I’m afraid that the pathos of his mother, Agava didn’t work as well. Bridget Bernie never seemed comfortable in the role. I don’t think that Mills and Reichel have come up with a dramatic way deal with the key scene when she came to the crushing realization that she had killed her own son. There’s a lot of singing around it, but the moment itself never happened for me.

I also wonder a bit about a show whose whole point seems to be that life has to be balanced between the rational and the emotional–the Apollonian and the Dionysian–but that concludes with a shrug from Dionysus and a chorus that says there is no moral, no lesson, no wisdom, no solace, and no easy Aesop fable ending. It’s even more peculiar that it then wraps up with the whole company dancing around and singing happily.

According to IU’s Director of Theatre and Drama Jonathan Michaelsen, the production was done in a whirlwind of two weeks and that included a lot of workshop style theatre. The creativity and the polish are remarkable. It’s amazing how much talent there is in the musical theatre program. Especially outstanding were Lovlee Carroll as a Bacchante, Mandy Striph as Agava’s sister Ino, Andrew Brewer as a soldier and Tamrin Goldberg as one of the Maenads. Combing these and the other students with the guest yields a heady mix.

Direction and choreography is by George Pinney. Costume designs are by Robbie Stanton. Other technical aspects are handled by MFA students. The scenic design is by Katie McDermott and Nick Passafume. Chris Wood handles the lighting and Andrew Hopson the sound.

Composer Peter Mills acts as the music director. He keeps the show’s sound lean and leaves the playing to just a guitar quartet. Three of the players have credentials from IU’s jazz program: guitarist Ben Mathews, bass player Coleman Cook and drummer Ryan Knudsen. The fourth member of the group is rhythm guitarist Trenton Hulen. Hulen is from the musical theatre program and in addition to playing comes on stage as an effective and important messenger.

The IU Department of Theatre and Drama/Premiere Musicals’ production of The Rockae continues with seven-thirty performances tonight and Saturday and a final matinee at tow on Sunday.

You can find this review and an interview with Peter Mills, Cara Reichel and Gordon Stanley on our web site at WFIU dot ORG.

At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.

George Walker

After completing an M.A.T. degree in English at Indiana University, George Walker began announcing for WFIU in 1967. Along with regularly hosting classical music shows, he interviews artists and reviews plays and operas.

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