Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2006

Once again the good folks at the Bakerloo Theatre Project are offering a special discount to GailSez readers! Mention this Web site at the box office at any Thursday or Sunday performance of “Julius Caesar” or “Antigone” and pay just $5!!

This production should be called William Addis’s Antigone because Addis has not only directed the show but created his own adaptation/interpretation of the various English translations of what has come down to us through the centuries as the Sophoclean script.

This is nothing new according to Bernard Knox in A Note on the Text of Sophocles in The Three Theban Plays (1982): “Theatrical producers…have no qualms when it comes to cutting or adding to suit the fashion of the times. By the second half of the fourth century such tampering with the classic texts seems to have become a matter for public concern in Athens, for in 330 B.C.E. the leading Athenian statesman, Lycurgus, proposed legislation designed to ensure that in Athens, if not elsewhere, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides would be staged in correct versions. The actors had to read over, with a city magistrate, the official text; no departures from it would be permitted.”

Addis’s version would definitely not have been acceptable to the ancient Athenians since it cuts out almost all of the Chorus’s lines, and it will be distressing to modern playgoers familiar with the poetry into which the Sophoclean fragments are generally rendered, but it is a clean and swift telling of the classic tale of the Princess who dared to defy her uncle, the King.

Addis employs a cast of twelve, with no doubling, including a three woman chorus consisting of Jillian Daily, Marsha Harman, and Gwyn Hervochon. I read somewhere that in Greek tragedy the chorus members always assumed the gender, costume, and mask of the central character, except for Antigone where they did not appear as women in order to further isolate her tragic figure. Here all the characters, male and female, are constantly surrounded by women, as Addis has his chorus draw in closely for three-on-one exchanges with the protagonists, and then draw back but never completely leave the stage during group scenes.

Sarah Murphy is a beautiful and clear-eyed Anitgone. Her appearance all in gauzy white in her final scene is moving, especially at the last moment when you see the fleeting flash of fear cross her face. Ultimately Antigone chooses and creates her own death, but that moment when she is being led away to the tomb in which she will be sealed for all eternity (although with a little food and water to allow Creon time to change his mind) the human instinct for survival at all costs almost gets the better of her.

A modern audience tends to root for Antigone, seeing Creon as “The Man” and Antigone as the feisty rebel willing to defy the establishment for what she believes is right. In fact the original audience would have sided with Creon because citizenship in a democratic Greek city-state in that period assumed that individuals would choose doing what was right for the city over doing following their personal inclinations. Creon’s tragic flaw is his inability to stick to his guns – he is too easily persuaded to change his mind and pardon Antigone.

In order to really understand Antigone’s motivation you have to know that in ancient Greece it was the right of the women in the family to prepare, lay out, and bury the deceased. It was a sacred right, and by making it a crime to bury Polyneices*, Creon was depriving Antigone of her god-given right. He was defying the gods himself by asking her to defy them. Antigone believed, and Haemon points out that most of Thebes agrees with her, that she will be judged far more harshly by the gods and by her family in the after-life if she doesn’t bury her brother, than she will be by mortal men in this life if she obeys Creon’s law. There is a disconnect between ancient thought, which recognized, rightly, that we spend far more time dead than alive, and modern thought which places all value in the here and now.

Joe Mihalchick is too young to play Creon, but everyone in the Bakerloo company is about the same age, and now effort is made to make anyone appear older or younger than they actually are. Addis is quite clear in his adaptation that this is a play and all the men and women merely players. Mihalchick is an actor playing Creon, and he plays him very well. Logically Creon is old enough to be Antigone’s father (his sister Jocasta was her mother) but here Mihalchick’s youth and vigor add to the vehemence of his threats to Antigone. He is a young man in the prime of his life and he will have his way. An older man might be expected to have garnered more wisdom than to see the world in black and white.

Danielle Grabianowski is a pretty Ismene. Watching the opening scene between her and Murphy, their young faces so expressive, it is hard to imagine seeing the same scene played by actors wearing masks. The stage movement, the personal confrontation, the attempt to persuade through vocal and facial expression that is so poignant here would all have been impossible in the original staging.

Alas, John Steffenauer’s Haemon and Erin Hopkins’ Eurydice feel as if they are wearing masks, so dispassionate and still do they remain. Yes, each character in Greek drama represents just one unchanging point of view, which the proscribed mask and costume helped delineate, but in these maskless days, as Murphy, Grabianowski, and Mihalchick prove with their impassioned performances, so much more can be expressed.

On the other end of the spectrum, Eric Chase’s broadly comic interpretation of the Guard who brings Creon the news that someone has scattered a handful of dirt over Polyneices corpse and later catches Antigone in the act of performing burial rites for her brother, seems equally out of place. I am aware that Sophocles actually wrote this character, sometimes referred to as the Sentry, in a jarringly different comic style, but to me Chase appeared to be overacting. I would have enjoyed a more subtle approach.

Justin Lawrence seems impossibly thin, clad in a tight grey trenchcoat as the blind prophet Teiresias. In Julius Caesar I found Lawrence’s intensity to be at odds with the acting styles of the actors with whom he was sharing the stage. Here he is better cast as in a role that absorbs his personal eccentricities. Blind prophets shouldn’t look and sound just like you and me, and Lawrence doesn’t.

Dana Liebowitz (sets), Michael O’Dell (lights), and Alaina Salks (costumes) have collaborated to create a spare look for this pared down Antigone. An old wrought-iron gate, quite a pretty and elaborate one, with wads of white paper stuffed behind it form the backdrop for the play, which is performed in three-quarter round on the floor rather than the stage. The central playing space is also covered in a flat, clean sheet of white paper, which is neither flat nor clean by the play’s end. The costumes are predominantly modern in feel, and are all in shades of black, grey, and white, with purple accents.

The design and Addis’s direction sit perfectly in the clean, white confines of the Academy Hall Theatre with it classical lines and tall columns. The show is staged simply enough that it could be presented just about anywhere, but in Academy Hall Bakerloo has found an ideal setting for both their 2006 shows.

With a run time of just a shade over one hour, this production of Antigone makes a gentle introduction to Greek tragedy for young audiences. As is customary in Greek drama, all the deaths occur off-stage, and while Haemon and Eurydice’s corpses do make an appearance, there is no blood. If you prepare your child in advance by reviewing the plot and back-story there is no reason why children 10 and up can’t appreciate this production

At the conclusion Addis has his chorus pose the following questions to the audience:
Who was right?
Was it worth it?
What would you be willing to do for something you believe in?

Modern Americans are very, very, very seldom asked to make any real sacrifice for what they believe or what they hold sacred. This we know and understand, and so our response to the third question is one of guilt and introspection. We all believe that we are cowards at heart and might very well fail when put to the test because we don’t have the answer to the second question: Is it worth it?

Last week I saw and reviewed Two Rooms by Lee Blessing, which is currently being performed by the Chester Theatre Company. In it a man is held hostage by Muslim extremists in Lebanon while back in the United States his wife waits, with a State Department employee and a journalist giving her conflicting advice on how to behave in order to ensure her husband’s safe release. He is ultimately murdered by his captors.

A powerful scene that opens the second act has the state department employee narrating a slide show explaining how “the enemy” thinks and why they must be stopped. A great deal of what she explains is this same disconnect between western concepts of life and death and eastern ones, which are much closer to the ancient model. We do not understand how someone can volunteer to be a suicide bomber, nor do we understand how that person’s family can view that decision as a glorious one. They do not understand the high value we place on the brief span of human life.

Watch the news. Antigone is still dying every day.

The Bakerloo Theatre Project‘s production of Antigone will be performed August 4, 5, 10, 11, 12 at 8 p.m. and August 13 at 2 p.m. in the Academy Hall Theatre on the campus of RPI in Troy, New York. The show runs an hour with no intermission. Tickets are $15 per show or $20 for a season pass. Call the box office at 518-892-2241 or 212-252-2947 for tickets and information.

* The Bakerloo program spells this character’s name Polyneices. My preferred translation of “Antigone” by Robert Fagles, spells it Polynices.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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