The title of this play is also its purpose – to show us what the ancient Greek tragedy of Antigone would look like in modern times, and locate its deeper meaning across the centuries.
While many playwrights attempt to “modernize” ancient myths by simply replacing a sword with a gun or a Trojan War with an Iraq War, in a sort of surface-level Mad Libs approach, Slovenian master writer Evald Flisar cuts past that to find a core of tragedy. Scena Theatre’s production is unfortunately tangled and confusing, but Flisar’s moral questing shines through all the same.
The ancient Antigone story figures on a simple conflict – her uncle, King Creon, will not allow her to bury her brother, and she defies him. In Flisar’s version, Antigone is now Clara (Danielle Davy), her uncle the Mayor (Ron Litman), and the key difference is that her brother is already buried – but the Mayor wants his remains moved, so that the cemetery can be replaced with a golf course and hotel, bringing hundreds of jobs to their impoverished, unnamed Mediterranean town. All the other plots’ owners have already had their deceased relocated, leaving only Antigone in the way of commercial development.
We learn of this conflict first from a chorus of international tourists, broad stereotypes of Americans, Brits, Germans, and so forth, in an opening scene that suggests a completely different kind of play than the one we end up seeing. It’s hard to say how much of this is due to director Robert McNamara favoring broad comedy and distractingly random stage-dives during this scene, versus how much is due to the script’s blunt approach to exposition, but either way it will prove to contrast with the real meat of the play: high-stakes arguments.
We will see Clara progress through a series of confrontations with people who have other concerns than preserving her brother’s burial site. Some, like her beloved former professor, blind Master Guido (Kim Curtis), wish to protect her from the danger she invites by standing in the way of big capitalist development; others, like her ex-lover Phillip (Joseph Carlson), want to take advantage of the situation to achieve their own desires; and, of course, there is the Mayor and his agents, who wish to see Clara give up her peculiarly traditionalist claim on the gravesite for the good of the community.
Yet this plot – which, while ethically thorny, is fairly straightforward – is interrupted, and made confusing, by interludes with two semi-reflective Killers (creepily convincing Bob Sheire and Stas Wronka), a visitation from a would-be gravedigger from Heidelberg (Colin Davies), and other side characters. They all are plenty relevant to the plot, but something in Scena’s presentation loses the thread. The approach to the acting wavers between a sort of serious-faced clowning – such as with the unfunny inept kung fu of the Security Guard (Joe Palka) – and earnestly down-to-earth drama, the latter of which is played superbly by Davy and Litman with able support from the ensemble. The design, as well, is simultaneously clunky for the actors to interact with and beautifully abstract (set by Michael Stepowany, lights by Marianne Meadows). Some of this mix seems satirical in intent, but mostly it makes the storyline unnecessarily muddy.
It’s a small shame, because there’s plenty enough here to wrestle with – layers upon layers of the good stuff, that Real Difficult Gray-Area Truth – without having to work through perplexing staging. That aforementioned key difference between Antigone’s and Clara’s stories leads us to understand that, whereas the original dealt with a conflict between the decrees of the state and the divine rights of a human, in Antigone Now the argument is between the economic will of the many versus the spiritual needs of the one. Clara acts within her legal rights by refusing to cede her brother’s burial plot to the developers, while the powers that be, represented by the Mayor, are forced to use court rulings, legal subterfuge, politics, and eventually extralegal thuggery to seek its aims.
March 24 – April 2
at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 22202
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $10 – $40
Check for discounts
Scena will be touring this production to Slovenia and Austria after closing its run here on April 2nd. I have to wonder how this American interpretation of a modern European revision of an ancient Greek myth will play over there, given its particularly American spin (that awkward comedy) on a particularly European (that vaguely orthodox old-world sense of burial honor) setup. Yet again, these differences cannot overwhelm the story. Just as if you had to watch a Beethoven symphony performed by musicians in cowboy and clown costumes, you would, while distracted, still receive the power of the music, so it is with Scena’s occasionally frustrating, but ultimately penetrating production.
And I, for one, am still not sure whether Clara was right or not. What will you think?
Antigone Now by Evald Flisar . Directed by Robert McNamara . Featuring Danielle Davy, Ron Litman, Matt Dougherty, Kim Curtis, Bob Sheire, Stas Wronka, Joe Palka, Joseph Carlson, Amanda Forstrom and Colin Davies . Set Design: Michael Stepowany . Costume Design: Alisa Mandel . Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows . Sound Design: Denise Rose . Technical Director: Dean Leong . Fight Coordinator: Paul Gallagher . Assistant Director: Anne Nottage . Stage Manager: Natalie Nichols . Produced by Scena Theatre . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.