Antigone Interrupted

What is it like to be buried alive? To feel the walls closing in on you, to lie in darkness knowing your eyes will never again know light, to be completely and utterly tortured by your own company, never knowing when death will bring relief? An afternoon cleaning pigeon shit out of an abandoned railway station while wearing a safety mask that forced me to smell my own stale breath for hours is my immediate point of reference, but this, is of course, mere child’s play compared to the tortures of Sophocles’ tragic heroine Antigone. And in Big Dance Theater’s production of Antigone: As Played and Danced by the Three Fates on Their Way to Becoming Three Graces with a script by Mac Wellman, to her torture and death she goes, with a wink, a curtsey, and a smile.

Brutality is a peculiarly juvenile phenomenon. One has to look no further than the horrifying fraternity hazing adminstrated by our honorable youth in Iraq and at Texas A&M to see how twisted the eighteen year old mind can be. Conversely, absolute belief in one’s own moral infallibility is also the province of the late teenage years. This period of unsurpassed rectitude generally ends about one’s senior year of college, unless one is preparing for a career in government or the clergy. Now imagine a headstrong, insufferable teenager fighting desperately for what she believes is right against an immovable, tight-ass totalitarian. Meadow Soprano fighting with Tony. Jenna Bush fighting with her dad. (“I just want to be normal! God, Dad! Like you didn’t drink in college! And this abstinence shit? I am SOOOOOO embarrassed! I already can’t score any pot from the hippie kids because my dad’s a ‘war criminal’! Whatever!)

The essential problem I have always had with the narrative of Antigone is that as a girl just emerging from the black hole of solipsism known as adolescence I cannot fathom that anyone would risk death to do something nice for their brother. Perhaps this is projecting a little, but are we not taught to look to the Greeks for our universals? Should we look to Antigone as an archetype of a certain kind of teenage girl? The kind who cuts herself/likes to write? The kind who draws anarchy symbols on her notebooks and is unnecessarily solicitous to homeless people?

This is, naturally, the meat of the narrative of Antigone. What is important is not the nature of the argument, but the fact that a mere clash of wills can cause such destruction. That devastating violence can arise out of something completely arbitrary—that people can take themselves so seriously that they might kill you.

Paul Lazar’s direction and Mac Wellman’s script wisely sidestep the viscera of war that, God willing, few of us will ever experience firsthand. The trauma, the physical pain, the palpable and inescapable fear of a people plagued by death are virtually impossible to reproduce literally onstage, as indeed, they should be. Some things are too vast for reality, and are better danced around, as is the empty suit of armor symbolizing the corpse of Antigone’s fallen brother Polynices that dominates the stage, by the Three Fates with dances of remarkable lightness by Annie-B Parson. What is achieved, and admirably so, is not a didactic treatise on the horrors of war, but a kind of illumination of what is at the root of war—a clash of wills, of ideologies. A family argument that escalates until somebody calls the police. An indictment of rigidity, perhaps, but nothing is heavy-handed here. All is deft, soft, yet the results are remarkably disturbing—like a skillful child embroidering a swastika on her apron pocket. And just as weirdly funny. Is that funny? Maybe that’s a bad analogy.

Paul Lazar writes in his accompanying notes “At the heart of the piece is an uncommon idea about the root of the tragic clash between Antigone and Creon. This monumental clash encompasses so many opposing forces: youth versus age, woman versus man, the individual versus the state, the spiritual verseus the civic. The Antigone of Mac Wellman focuses on the philosophical dimensions of this conflict and considers the tragic implications of limited modes of thinking. What happens when the mind of a king is confronted with a pattern of thinking, or with an event, for which he has no precedent? What happens when a people’s language cannot encompass its experience?” And when this happens, with inevitably tragic results, whose responsibility is it to attempt to change their mode of thinking? Is it the establishment’s the “grown-ups’”, with their greater sum of experience and presumable wisdom? Or is it the duty of the young, who are malleable and hungry for possibility? Like all art of complexity, the piece raises far more questions than it answers, and reminds us that questions are answers in and of themselves.

The performances, are all extremely skillful and precise in the way that the post-modern dancer’s can be, when it is simply a joy to watch pedestrian movement so perfect and specific. Deirdre O’Connell, Molly Hickock, Rebecca Wisocky and Nancy Ellis open the play with feverish buzzing bee-like movement to what we are informed is Pop Music from Uzbekistan. That’s good. It’s always fun to laugh at ex-Soviets trying to be funky, and it puts the audience in the right frame of mind. The actors chatter and giggle like a record spun too fast except when Rebecca Wisocky pauses to speak Creon’s lines in a deep, matinee idol voice. Leroy Logan, as the Narrator/E Shriek, is fitted out with gown and laurels, looking (somehow appropriately) like an arty version of the Ghost of Christmas Past. He lends a gravitas of classicism to the giddy, airy, energy of co-stars.

And as for Antigone being buried alive, as grisly a death as it may seem, is it not in this case sort of an old-fashioned version of being really, majorly grounded? Let’s hope parents of unruly offspring don’t get any ideas.

Antigone: As Played and Danced by the Three Fates on Their Way to Becoming Three Graces is playing at The Classic Stage Company through May 23rd.

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