It is difficult to present classic theater to a modern audience because language and classic conventions can often obscure the story. The classic plays have survived centuries precisely because of the richness of their themes, which allow nearly infinite interpretations by actors and directors, and also can therefore maintain their pertinence contextually for audiences of any era.
Antigone, as a work of stagecraft, is somewhat anomalous in that its title character is not really the center of the play, except that she operates as a fulcrum around which the action revolves. Antigone herself does not change during the action of the play, but her actions set in motion a series of reactions that have tragic consequences. The play has often been seen as a warning of what happens to those who fail to follow the will of the gods, and a condemnation of the hubris of mankind.
RedTwist Theater, in a sparse, innovative 75-minute staging of a new translation of Sophocles’ play by Anne Carson, updates the 2500-year-old play by posing Antigone as a feminist / activist heroine raging against a patriarchal authoritarian king, her uncle Kreon. The classic themes of Antigone lend themselves well to this reading, with a slight adjustment of the translation of ‘anthropos’ (mankind) as literally ‘man’, suggesting that perhaps the problem is the hubris of male leadership rather than of mankind in general.
For those unfamiliar with the play, a plot summary is linked here (https://www.sparknotes.com/drama/antigone/summary/), but the basic arc of the story is that two brothers (sons in the cursed family of ex-king Oedipus) have taken opposing sides in a civil war, met on the battlefield, and killed each other. Kreon, brother-in-law of the disgraced former king Oedipus, is the new king, and decrees that the loyal brother Eteocles, who defended Thebes, will be given a burial with full honors. Kreon also decrees that the disloyal brother Polynices, who sided with the rebels, shall be left unburied for carrion to dismember, and Polynices’ soul will thus never rest, since he has not been buried according to rituals proscribed by the gods. The dead soldiers’ sister and Kreon’s niece, Antigone, vows to surreptitiously give Polynices a burial in defiance of Kreon’s dictates. The reactions of all the characters in the play illustrate various philosophical responses to her actions, and emphasize the tension between the goals of justice and the absolute rule of law.
Brian Parry’s cantankerous portrayal of Kreon is an outstandingly measured performance, showing the king as a backslapping, misogynist leader who maintains control primarily by intimidation, and expects absolute loyalty from his sycophantic “advisors” (with obvious modern political corollaries), yet in his own misguided way, seems genuinely concerned for the welfare of his family and the state. Isabel Alamin’s bratty, strident Antigone defiantly rebels against the king’s pedantic calls to maintain order, dismissing his warnings of anarchy and chaos with repeated calls for justice that can only be measured by the gods, not prideful kings. Kreon’s continual dismissals of the concerns of “women” likely would not have seemed as harsh in their time, but today seem blatantly misogynistic.
Kreon’s fatal flaw in this staging is his narcissistic inability to actually take constructive advice, his “bad judgment”. While ignoring the youthful cries for justice from Antigone might be understood as political self-protection, when he is told repeatedly by others, including his advisors, that public opinion has turned against him, he pridefully ignores it, as he believes that backing down would make him seem weak. Worse, when the seer Teiresias predicts a terrible downfall with many deaths, he berates the prophet as “corrupt” in a tirade of denials familiar to anyone who has heard modern complaints about the “mainstream media”.
The Greek chorus, which historically served as a reflection of the audience, or an expository device, in its era, is often problematic for modern stagings, but RedTwist here has implemented both subtle costuming (designed by Anna Bodell), and energetic movement to make the chorus one of the delights of this show. A minimalist, ominous metallic musical score by Solomon Weisbard adds tension to the proceedings and hangs dread over the fast-moving action, enhancing the sense of inevitability to the fate of the characters.
This intimate staging neatly frames the narrative conflicts with modern analogs: the order of autocratic rule versus the democratic will of public opinion; generational dissent on what constitutes true justice; debate on whether ‘natural’ law or ‘civil’ law should prevail in society. In summary, this production posits the play as a tragic battle between two radical interpretations of what should govern society, in the aftermath of a literal civil war. The concluding scene removes Kreon from cartoonish villainy, as Parry displays the regret and shame of a man who has lost everything by trying to protect it with radical leadership.
This staging is refreshing and entertaining for classical neophytes as well as those familiar with the play, and the brisk presentation focuses on a meaningful story and avoids the pretentious pitfalls into which classics can often fall.
1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Playing until July 31
Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.
Sundays, 3:00 p.m.