THE DREAMS OF ANTIGONE: Did Sophocles really need to be improved?
It would seem that Sophocles has been hanging around for 2500 years waiting to be improved — and the makeover artists have been numerous. Antigone alone has been given a new look by Jean Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht, Seamus Heaney, A.R Gurney, and Judith Malina, to name a few. Now Trinity Repertory Company’s artistic director, Curt Columbus, gets in on the act with The Dreams of Antigone, an Upstairs, Downstairs update of the tale of Oedipus’s martyred daughter that’s in its world premiere on the company’s home turf (through October 26). It’s easy to understand the motivation: the formality of Greek tragedy can be intimidating, and the device of the Chorus, as it chants its cautionary if sympathetic strophes and antistrophes, is hard to handle. But why not leave well enough — and Sophocles did well enough — alone?
Columbus’s rewrite, undertaken in collaboration with the Trinity acting company, weaves ancient Greece and contemporary America into a script that begins “We the people” before segueing from the US Constitution to Sophocles’s story of heroic defiance in the face of unbending governmental authority. The piece is intended to resonate with a crowd for whom the role of fate and the will of the gods have less pull than they did with the original audience and to examine the roles of myth, the populace, and even theater itself in determining the course of public events. It asks why Antigone’s story has so stubbornly endured and whether there is a point at which it might have gone in another direction.
You remember the basics: Oedipus’s sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, fought a brutal civil war over control of Thebes, at the culmination of which they killed each other. Their uncle, Creon, seeking to restore order and establish his own authority, has declared Eteocles a hero and Polyneices a traitor who deserves to rot where he fell. The new honcho issues an edict — which Antigone disobeys — that anyone who tries to bury him will be executed. In the Greek play, Antigone places her allegiance to a Higher Authority ahead of her allegiance to the State; here it pretty much comes down to “doing the right thing.” And too much of the script has that sort of blunt, simplistic ring — as if it were the result of intense improvisation rather than authorial intent. Columbus’s audaciously Americanized adaptation of The Cherry Orchard brimmed with colloquial vigor; this one, with its shared narration and political speechifying interspersed with family squabbling, ricochets between the obvious and the jarring — as when dead relatives appear in dreams, calling snide attention to their incestuously twisted family tree or, in the case of the brothers, re-enacting the battle for Thebes as a joust played out on high, movable scaffolds. Hey, this is Antigone, not American Gladiators.
But you can’t say Brian McEleney’s staging, on Tristan Jeffers’s rubble-strewn cross between a rehearsal hall and the Parthenon, isn’t compelling. The excellent actors are fully committed, with Fred Sullivan Jr.’s Creon a calculating yet human pol with his iron hands full and Rachael Warren an imperfect Antigone whose martyrdom seems more compulsive than planned. Stephen Berenson and Joe Wilson Jr. are Creon’s advisers, a Cheney-like prime minister and a wary general, who shift their counsel as they sniff the public mood. Angela Brazil’s Cassandra-like Ismene burns with a feral intensity, and Stephen Thorne gives a tender yet volatile performance as Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé. Janice Duclos, Barbara Meek, and Anne Scurria add comic relief as well as a human face as a trio of palace staff debating what roles they might play in the royal standoff and its trickle-down through history. It’s obvious that one of Columbus’s aims is to widen the consideration of activism from one individual to the community at large. But Greek tragedy isn’t about the Chorus.
Brave young women also face grim odds in In the Continuum, which is receiving its Boston premiere courtesy of the Boston Center for the Arts’ newest resident troupe, Up You Mighty Race (at the BCA Plaza through October 18). It’s an emotionally powerful and politically useful piece that began life as two MFA theses melded by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, students in NYU’s graduate acting program, and presented Off Broadway in 2005. The connecting tissue is HIV/AIDS, which has transmogrified from its beginnings as a gay-male plague into a significant threat to heterosexual African and African-American women (and men). Gurira, who is of Zimbabwean descent, had carved a monologue about a married middle-class newscaster who finds herself infected and pregnant; Salter’s subject was a sassy LA teen in the same fix. Throwing their works into a continuum, as it were, they came up with a sparky theater piece that is universal as well as specific. And under the direction of Akiba Abaka, producing artistic director of Up You Mighty Race, two Brandeis-minted acting MFAs, Lindsey McWhorter and Ramona Lisa Alexander, inhabit it as if it were their theses. If the performances are sometimes too cacophonous for the intimate space, they are nonetheless irresistible.