nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 10, 2007
There is a moment in the Cruel Theatre's theatrical conflation of Euripides's The Bacchae and the true story of Andrea Yates, Andrea/Agave, when the actor functioning as the Greek chorus recites all of the medications that Yates received during her long, ultimately losing, battle against mental illness. The list ranges from Neurontin to Haldol to Zoloft. For anyone familiar with psychoactive drugs, it's a shocking inventory, especially since she was taking many of these extremely powerful medications concomitantly. This was a very sick woman, a point the piece takes great pains to make, make again, and then go on to make several more times.
This dramaturgical version of obsessive-compulsive disorder is unfortunate because Taurie Kinoshita and her Honolulu-based company have certainly chosen compelling material to dramatize. Yates (embodied with ferocious conviction by Julie Ann McMillan) was the Texas Evangelical housewife who murdered her five children in June of 2001. In an act that perversely mirrored the core sacramental right of passage for all born-again Christians, she strangled them in a bathtub filled with water. Upon the arrival of the police (after she had called them herself to report the incident), she calmly told the officers that she had killed her children because she was bad mother who was possessed by Satan and that sacrificing their lives was the only way she could ensure that they would go to Heaven.
Despite her well-documented history of postpartum depression coupled with severe delusional psychosis (she believed that Satan had installed video cameras in her home to track her every move), her first jury trial ended with a conviction of first-degree murder and life imprisonment. It took an appeal on the part of her husband to get the sentence changed to not guilty by reason of insanity.
It's an incredibly depressing story made even more tragic by the knowledge that every potential structural support in this woman's life completely failed her: her marriage, her religious faith, the health care system, and the wheels of justice. Yates's madness and its horrific result reflect larger schizophrenic crises within American culture: the ongoing misogynist backlash against feminism (Andrea's husband, Russell, is quoted as saying that "women who work are witches"); a dominant form of Christianity fixated on punishment and individualized experiences of sin, redemption, and apocalyptic destruction; psychiatric "care" that was quick to dispense meds but couldn't provide her with a consistent social worker or psychologist to track the progress of her treatment. And when her case finally goes to trial, the toxic symbiosis of the national tabloid press and a cynical prosecutorial team all but ensures that she won't get a fair trial.
This all makes for a potentially rich theatrical event. Sadly, Kinoshita settles for overwrought histrionics and telegraphing of events when a cooler and more expansive analytic approach would have served the material better. All of these themes are raised, but with the exception of the production's fixation on the mental health care system, none is really explored to either intellectual or dramatic satisfaction. And the central conceit of linking Andrea with the Greek tragic figure of Agave feels cosmetic, falling apart upon closer analysis. Agave is punished for resisting the ecstatic spiritual experiences offered by her nephew Dionysus; Andrea is all too willing to embrace a Christianity of personal visions and private hells. It was partly her isolation from any form of community, including religious, that contributed to her undoing. Unfortunately this point is lost amidst the howling demons, sloppy blocking, and cliché music cues that distract from the gripping material. We don't need Greek myth to make her story significant—it's an all-too-true American horror story ripe for a modern-day Euripides to transform into art with simplicity and clarity.