Euripides' The Bacche preceded Elvis Presley by more than 2,300 years. But Transylvania University theater professor Tim Soulis sees a lot of rock 'n' roll in the Greek tragedy, written in 405 B.C.
"Dionysus has a real rock-star quality," Soulis said in the lobby of Transylvania's Lucille C. Little Theatre, where his production of The Bakkhai (his alternate spelling) runs for the next two weekends. "He was all about free love, revolution, rebellion. He was a god of war, sex and rock 'n' roll."
So Soulis has turned the show into a rock opera of sorts. He is using a new translation of the play by Greek scholar Khalli Anna Mossi, who wrote a modernized translation including simple melodic vocal lines.
Soulis was interested in mounting a production of the show, but he hadn't thought of it for this season until one of his students, Ashley Stafford, approached him about presenting a musical. Because he was on sabbatical in the spring, when Transy usually presents musicals, Soulis hadn't planned on one. But because of the interest of Stafford, who is the show's choreographer, he decided to tackle The Bakkhai.
To arrange the music, he pulled in music education major Alex Yaden, who worked with the theater earlier this year on music for Eugène Ionesco's Rhinocéros.
"I don't know that the story really influenced me as much as the idea of rock opera," said Yaden, 19, a sophomore from London. "It was more the grandiose idea of telling the story through rock."
He scored the music, based on Mossi's melodies, for keyboard, drums and bass guitar. The music primarily accompanies Dionysus and the Bakkhai women.
John Code, who plays King Pentheus, says making the show a rock musical "is a great idea because it's about reckless abandon."
In the story, Dionysus and his legion of femme fatales stage murderous attacks. The god eventually lures Agave, one of the women, to unwittingly kill her son, King Pentheus, who has expressed disdain for Dionysus and women.
Paul Brown, who plays Dionysus, says he is generally a quiet guy, but he channeled rock idols including Queen's Freddie Mercury and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant to create the character.
"There's this moment where he sings, 'I'm a god!' and he added this pelvic thrust in rehearsal about a week ago that was just perfect," Soulis said of Brown, whose performance also has elements of Prince. "It's very self-congratulatory, saying 'I can do whatever I want.'"
Missy Johnston's costume designs incorporate a lot of classic rock icons, including tie-dye, sunglasses and Dionysus' leather jeans.
Creating a new take on the play is important, Soulis says, so that younger audiences who wouldn't turn out for a straight performance of a Greek tragedy will give the show a look.
And although the play is nearly 21/2 millennia old, Emileigh Burns, who plays Agave, says there are important ideas in the show to consider today.
"It says following people without question is dangerous," says Burns, 21, a drama major. "Finding a relevant way to tell the story is really important, and that we are doing it with a student composer and choreographer to make a new rock musical is really exciting."