Original adaptation brings new life to classic play
Special to the Post Independent
This reviewer finds herself in danger of falling into sounding like the same kind of cliche that has gotten “Antigone” into trouble, both enshrining and entombing a play that for the ancients brimmed with the Aristotelian requisite of inspiring pity and fear in the audience.
To use accolades like “brilliant innovation,” “sparkling satire” and “wildly inventive” would be unworthy of Carbondale-based Thunder River Theatre Company’s production of “Antigone,” which performs the rare feat of breathing life into a play that has over the centuries lost its own thunder.
This review will therefore attempt to steer clear of hackneyed adjectives, just as the ensemble’s artistic director Lon Winston and dramaturgist Valerie Haugen avoid the pitfalls that have doomed “Antigone” to being received with dutiful platitudes by generations of restive theater-goers.
At the crux of the current production at the Carbondale Community School is a new use for the Chorus and a more complex character depiction.
Winston’s feat has been to make the Chorus – the collective body of commentary that was a basic of Greek Tragedy but whose role has lost its meaning for modern audiences – into both a fluid instrument of narrative and, most surprising of all, into belly-laugh satire and astute social commentary.
The chorus – with creatively choreographed grace and vivid words – places Antigone’s tragedy in the context of the saga of the doomed royal family of Thebes so familiar to Ancient audiences that no such background was necessary. Winston’s brainstorm – the Chorus as 24-hour TV news – makes its traditional role as public commentator both finally comprehensible and incredibly comic.
This is post-modernism at its best, appropriating across the ages to retell the timeless with sharply edged and highly comedic anachronism, as in the anchorperson thrusting a microphone into Antigone’s death-masked face and demanding, “How does it feel to be condemned to death?”
Antigone has often been sentimentalized as a simpering, sappy young girl who inexplicably finds the courage to defy a tyrant at the price of her life. Not so this Antigone. Haugen, who plays a member of Winston’s disciplined and dynamic Chorus as well as the doomed heroine, gives us a psychologically plausible candidate for martyrdom. Presenting Antigone as comforter of her exiled, self-blinded father, Oedipus, elicits empathy for a role that could easily fall into abstraction.
Richard Lyon brings to the role of Creon a complexity that evolved with the actor’s extensive study of the Theban myths and their dramatization, from Sophocles at the dawn of theatre to Anouilh, whose politicized interpretation stirred French audiences during the Nazi occupation.
Lyon’s Creon is the soldier-administrator, a reformer sincerely trying to clean up the scandal-ridden, soothsayer-obsessed Theban royals in the interests of a rational and orderly system of government. This Creon is every reformer whose admirable intentions are subverted by a swelling pride and festering paranoia.
This sympathetic civic authority fits the Classic mode in which the characters are doomed from within by character flaws, like the young Oedipus’ recklessness and refusal to curb his impulses and by Creon’s inability to compromise.
In the memorable scene between Antigone and Creon, reason does seem to be on his side. But the moral imperative goes to Antigone, who speaks for the spiritual as Creon defends the pragmatic. Winston, as chorus leader, shrewdly accuses both tyrant and rebel of self-righteousness, thus opting for the problematic over the simplistic. As she is led off to her death, Haugen’s Antigone quickens both our admiration at her tenacious courage and our empathy for the poignancy of her sacrifice.
In the supporting roles, Patrick Murray is vigorous as Creon’s son and Antigone’s intended husband and Kathryn Preston is appropriately pitiable as Ismene, Antigone’s sincere and all-too-human sister. Michael Miller shines in the triple role of Chorus member, earthy, sniveling sentry and the prophet Teiresias, who has the despairing role of providing Creon with a too-belated insight.
Every member of the cast is in the Chorus, which in true Classic form takes on a collective persona. This is a chorus whose narrative and commentary functions have the audience experiencing emotions the Greeks called cathartic while in its satiric capacity it generates laughter unprecedented in Classical presentations.
As with all Thunder River productions, every detail of staging – from Winston’s scenography, true to this adaptation’s emphasis on the timelessness of the Theban themes, to Judy Benson’s agile stage management, to the haunting traditional masques and the foreboding music – contribute to the overall atmosphere for which the Greeks invented the word awe. This production, then, is quite literally awesome. You owe it to yourself not to miss it.
Tickets are $15 for non-Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities members and $13 for members, and $8 for students ($5 for the March 28 show). For reservations, call CCAH at 963-1680.
Thunder River Theatre Company
“Greek Shards: Antigone” an original adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone myth.
March 22-24 and 29, 30. Friday and Saturday performances, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 6 p.m. (high school matinee, Thursday, March 28, 1 p.m.)
Carbondale Community School, 1505 Dolores Way
General admission $15 adults/$8 students; CCAH members $13/$6
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