By Jean Anouilh
Produced by Forum Theatre and Dance
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Antigone. The very name conjures up wailing, morose women dressed in long white togas, inescapable tragedy, reminders of the whole Oedipus mother-son mishap, and enough long sour faces to fill a Debbie Downer SNL sketch. Well, feast your eyes on the likes of this rather upbeat production, where death is treated just like any other inescable aspect of life – it’s going to happen to all of us, so may as well make the most of it. Putting death in its rightful place as rather comfortable, even sometimes humorous helps to free it from the dreary baggage associated with it.
Who knew that death could be liberating, while hope – now, that’s an emotion that will weigh you down with expectation, dread, misery.
In this “re-imagined” translation by Anouilh, everything gets plopped on its head, topsy turvey, and director Michael Dove grabs the concept like he’s burrowed into Anouilh’s brain to orchestrate this up-to-date rendition. This is definitely not your grandmother’s Antigone.
Except, well, maybe literally it is since this adaptation was written in 1942, with a nod perhaps to the moral and political turmoil of Nazi occupied France. You couldn’t tell it from the production’s modern dress, the upbeat language and current sensibilities, with characters struggling with issues just as relevant in today’s multi-tasking, e-modern society.
Lots of credit goes to the wonder-guy himself, Dove. Not only has he breathed life into the already intriguing script, and pushed the envelope for innovative interpretation and staging of the characters, he’s even included a hint of the politico-rich posturing of the Capital region, which Nigel Reed as Creon performs to perfection. Creon’s barking off directives to his aid who follows him anxiously with clipboard in hand dutifully attending to his every word could easily be a scene occurring right now on “the Hill” between a member of congress and his trusted staff.
No matter what the interpretation, the basic premise is a hell of a story, which is why it’s lasted since antiquity. The drama revolves around the conflict between the idealist Antigone and her rigid uncle Creon, over the proper burial of Antigone’s brother, Polynices. The age-old call of honor and duty hits heavy, only this time there’s a twist-the honor mantle is borne by a head-strong young woman–amazing how the ancients were so ahead of their time on this one.
After the introductions, we first see Antigone excited about the grass under her feet, so much that she’s barefoot to relish every bit of the earthy experience. This is just Sophocles at his foreshadowing best, of course, allowing us to glimpse her glee on digging her toes in the soil when just hours later, she’ll be poised to claw the ground with bloody bare fingers desperately trying to bury her brother.
What’s up with this young woman who chooses death over life? Though “not the prettiest one,” she has a good man who can deal with her rather significant quirks and has proven to be devoted to her, and a father-in-law willing to give her a second chance when she defies him and messes up. Why insist on the path of self-destruction? She’s got the secular trappings of a good-enough-for-a-decent-life experience, but is steadfast and determined to select death and torment instead. Sophocles wrestles with the key ideals in the play when he has Antigone ponder how it is proper for a man to die for an ideal, only to hear in response-“but you’re a girl!” Even when family secrets are revealed, and the cause for which she is brandishing herself starts to tarnish in the cold reality of truth, she stays the course. What propels a person so unflinchingly towards death and annihilation even when the cause turns out to be not as noble and honorable as originally perceived? It’s an ageless question, so relevant in these turbulent days of suicidal extremists. As the narrator states in the introduction-everybody has a story.
Katie Atkinson is a perfect Antigone with the haunted, weary and resigned look in her wide-set eyes-she’s called upon to relay a lot about the character while just staring out at in the audience in listening reactive mode. She balances that intense mental engagement, ratchets up delivery (and decibel level) to speak truth to power, with moxie to stare down Creon and take him on, and explode into her own forceful tirades.
She has more than met her match with Nigel Reed’s masterfully multilayered Creon. Reed’s overall performance including resigned acceptance of the consequences of his actions at the end of the show is a work of art. Fiona Blackshaw does double and triple duty in her consistent and reliable delivery as narrator/chorus, while also serving as one of the Forum directors. Also, the multi-talented Carleen Troy who was truly incredible as Pecola in Theater Alliance’s Bluest Eye, designed both sets– in this case, imposing large rectangular pillars regally in front of a backdrop reflecting projections of slowly blending colors, including seeping dollops of blood red at the end.-all very effective.
Anouilh’s Antigone skillfully presents the everyday normalcy of death and dying, and ends with the same set-up used in the beginning, reflecting a kind of circle of life motif. As the guards settle in comfortably with a game of cards, we know the horror of what’s gone on before, and sit still stunned by the messenger’s tale. Yet, life goes on— the sun will rise and set, food must be gathered, and card games will be played. And so it goes.
In his Director’s Notes, Dove questions, “How often have we felt that life has its own script? That we have been cast into these lives and have a part to play?” The hard part, he goes on to say, is when we actively step into our roles, “and be who we were meant to be, come what may.” Through this production, Forum Theater accomplishes its mission “of exploring different styles of storytelling to illuminate new perspectives and new topics within a story.” Now starting its fourth season in a steady (and secure?) place for a change, the company can concentrate even more ferociously on its artistic endeavors. If they were able to produce provocative gems (including the acclaimed Valparaiso) while scrounging around scratching for space, just imagine what awaits us now. Stay tuned.
Running Time: Nearly2 hours, no intermission
When: Thru December 30th, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees 2:00 pm.
Where: H Street Playhouse, 1365 H. Street, N.E, Washington, D.C.
Info: call 202-489-1701./ or visit their website.