Theatre Coup d’Etat’s new adaptation of the Greek legend of the ill-fated Antigone that kicks so much ass that if the rest of the show had been that good, the thing would have been 5 stars in a walk. It’s a nightmare sequence centered on a couple of actors and a piece of black cloth creating a two-headed spirit beast that’s done so simply, and yet is so unsettling and creepy, the happy theater part of my brain was crowing, “That! More of that, please!”
“The whispers you have heard are true.”
The challenge with this new version of Antigone is that almost none of the other departures from the source material of Sophocles’ original play work nearly as well. On the flip side, a lot of the times the production cleaves more closely to the original, I found myself thinking, “Well, that’s a weird choice, where did that come from?” Then I looked at the original play afterward and found out, Oh, that’s in there. Doesn’t work here, though.
“The briefest way is best in a world of sorrow.”
Devised theater is hard, so I applaud Coup d’Etat for taking a swing at it. (By the way, am I required to preface their name now as the Ivey Award-winning Theatre Coup d'Etat, since they have two? Congrats on the award for Equus, everyone!) They regularly team up with strong actors, so an ensemble-created approach to a classic story seems like a smart variation on the kind of work they already do. This production of Antigone shows a lot of promise in that direction (again, the nightmare sequence). They probably just need more time to work on strengthening those muscles, and maybe more lead time to really land the version of the story they want, and give themselves permission to stray further from the letter of their source while still remaining true to its spirit.
“Sometimes our first efforts aren’t always our best.”
Quick refresher: Antigone (Lauren Diesch) is one of the daughters of Oedpius (killed his father, married his mother, gouged his own eyes out). So, Antigone and her siblings are just (no pun intended) royally screwed by fate from the get-go. Oedipus cursed his two sons (Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices) with a divided kingdom. The brothers tried to avoid splitting the kingdom of Thebes by agreeing to take turns ruling it in alternate years. But after year one, Eteocles (Jason Paul Andrews) decided he didn’t want to give up the throne. So Polyneices (Michael Johnson) felt he had no choice but to get a foreign army to back him up in trying to take the kingdom from his recalcitrant brother.
“The gods cannot accept one without the other.”
In the ensuing battle, the brothers kill each other, leaving their uncle Creon (Brian Joyce) in charge as new king. Creon decides that Eteocles will get a hero’s funeral but Polyneices will be left to rot in the street and be picked at by birds and dogs. Anyone who tries to bury him will be sentenced to death themselves. Guess who decides to go ahead and bury Polyneices anyway? Our title heroine, of course. And no amount of pleading from her remaining sister Ismene (Jayme Godding) can keep Antigone from doing it. And no amount of pleading from Creon’s wife Eurydice (Sue Gerver) or their son Haemon (Jeff Groff), who’s engaged to marry Antigone, can keep Creon from his determination to punish any offender, even if it’s a member of his extended family. To say this is going to end badly for a lot of people is an understatement.
“Fate is at your doorstep. Its shadow stretches across your kingdom.”
One of the other strongest moments in the play is when Antigone and Creon are alone together, hashing out their conflict of loyalty and decency versus the rule of law. Antigone admits that they need to play out the roles that fate has dealt them, even though that means Creon is probably going to have to put his niece to death. Because they are both equally right and equally wrong in the circumstances that led them to this moment, Diesch in particular as Antigone just nails it here. There is also an earlier moment, when the four guards (Kelly Nelson, Antonia Perez, Franklin Wagner and Patrick Webster) meant to prevent anyone from burying the brother’s body catch Antigone in the act. One by one, for their own reasons, they decide to wait to arrest her, to turn their backs and pretend not to see her, so that she has a chance to pay honor to her fallen brother. It’s in moments like this where the work of adapter and director Meagan Kedrowski, collaborating with her fellow artists, really sings.
“I have accepted my role. Now accept yours.”
These key high points are unfortunately surrounded by a lot of head-scratching choices in storytelling. Was it necessary to create a love triangle that isn’t sufficiently developed and doesn’t really pay off The four guards mentioned above also act as a more traditional Greek chorus, here tagged as Fates, and they’re very effective in this role. But then this version of the Antigone story also gets a narrator that is in addition a character called the Nurse (Lori Castille). It’s a Greek tragedy, and you already have a chorus. Why do you also have a narrator? And why is that narrator not Antigone telling her own story for a change? And why does the narrator we get feel like she’s actually the Nurse from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet who wandered into the wrong play?
“You’d kill four innocent people with families but you won’t let me bury my own brother?”
Why do we spend so much time in flashback scenes of the brothers and sisters when they were kids? If you’re going to insist on inserting flashbacks, it would have been more useful to have relatively recent flashbacks of these people as adults, so we could understand better who they are in this story, and the choices that led them to this impasse (that led two brothers to want to kill each other, for instance). That’s how you get me to care about them. Showing them as kids veers pretty close to the territory of unearned sentimentality and tear-jerking. Get me to care about them now, in the present, I’ll cry for you. Don’t drag kids into it.
“Doesn’t death make all men equal?”
And another Shakespearean nod finds a whole scene devoted to Creon bantering back and forth with one of the guards who is cast in the thankless role of one of the Bard’s buffoonish clowns - the kind that wears out their welcome and flogs their jokes to death long before the scene is over.
“We cannot simply do what we think is right.”
The notion of class and privilege is also tackled in an uneven manner. Most of the characters central to the story are of royal blood. The four person chorus plus the Nurse get a lot of stage time, and all of them would be considered of a lower class than the main characters. But the discrepancy between what some people may do and get away with, and others may not only seems to pop up briefly and sporadically when the story feels like addressing it, rather than being threaded through the whole narrative to get some additional thematic leverage.
“This path leads only to death. I cannot let you walk it alone.”
Because in this ancient and fictitious war, at least the leaders of the nation go into battle along with the other fighting men. Right now we’ve got a government that sends only a sliver of a percentage of the American population off to fight two wars that we barely acknowledge, and that Congress didn’t even bother to vote on - and they’ve lasted for well over a decade. Also, in the current political climate here at home, with the struggles between communities and police, watching a bunch of mostly white people debating the opposing sides of the moral and legal questions of being allowed to honor and bury their dead seems a bit antiseptic, and not nearly as messy as it probably should be. It also feels like an opportunity missed.
“The time we have to please the dead, sister, is far longer than the time we have to please the living.”
All of which goes by way of saying that this production of Antigone is a mixed bag. Nearly every performer gets a chance or two to shine, and goes for it. Some ensemble moments really stand out. But there’s a lot of stuff rattling around in here that seems either confusing or misplaced. Antigone remains a powerful story, and Theatre Coup d’Etat does its best to deliver on the promise inherent in the tale. It’s still well worth seeing, but you can be forgiven for thinking about the show it could have been.
4 Stars - Highly Recommended
(photo by Craig Hostetler; Lauren Diesch as Antigone)