Extended Play(fulness) & Big Dance Theater’s Antigonick

Photo by Maria Baranova

A run-time of thirty minutes is an intriguing length for a performance piece. Our brains, now programmed by streaming television and podcasts, eagerly recognize this duration – the thirty to forty-five minute piece reflects the length of time we’re trained to keep paying attention before requiring something to “change” in the world that we’re watching. When’s the last time you read a book for longer than thirty consecutive minutes without the mind wandering? The half-hour duration is also suggestive, in music recording parlance, of an EP (which stands for extended play, too short to be a full length album, too long to be a single; LP stands for Long Play). There’s something apt in applying the term ‘extended play’ to Big Dance Theater’s most recent (short) production Antigonick, which was presented at Abrons Arts Center November 14th-17th.

Working from the text of Canadian poet Anne Carson’s non-traditional translation of Sophocles’ Antigone (Carson includes witty references to Hegel and Brecht, to name a few), director and choreographer Annie-B Parson blends her own influences into the mix. Opening with delicate eastern music and an understated traditional-seeming movement sequence, it initially appears that we’re hewing closer to Greece than Canada, but that world is quickly, abruptly ruptured by the entrance of Kreon (played powerfully by Stacy Dawson Stearns) to a throbbing techno score. Kreon’s choreography is full of flash, hands sweeping up in the air, courtly dance as though rendered through the lens of a motorcycle gang. It becomes quickly evident that this is Kreon’s show (though the program notes suggest that the work is focused around Antigone’s peaceful resistance to her death sentence, it’s Kreon who gets all the best entrances), and so that glam-court style bleeds through and into the proceedings, rendering everything around it with an outline of cheeky perversity.

Extended play: More-so here than in other recent Big Dance Theater productions, there is an ever-present and accessible sense of play at hand. While the subject matter is dead serious, the style and aesthetic approach feels giddy, unafraid of big stupid choices when they’re appropriate. There’s a running joke that whenever the messenger arrives (played by Jennie Mary Tai Lui), she pauses twice to breath heavily in rhythm, both effective in suggesting the distance traveled at great speed, and funny in its abstract dumbness as a theatrical tool.  Which is not to say the work lacks subtlety – Elizabeth DeMent acts as a sort of grounding device, often appearing in the upper balcony of the downstairs Experimental theater (the audience configuration has been flipped, with the observers on the ground where the stage usually is in plastic deck chairs and the performers taking over the “back” of the theater space, making use of the built-in levels and even delivering action straight from the tech booth) and mirroring Kreon’s and occasionally, other characters’ choreography. I wasn’t able to articulate any obvious reason for her presence, but it created a necessary layer and complicated the action, making it possible to consider multiple non-character-based interpretations of the same movements.

Each passing moment is enacted with cheeky dead-pan verve and technical precision by the all-star cast (other members include Vinie Burrows, Anne Gridley, Eliza Bent, Jeanine Durning, and Sibyl Kempson). Notably, the role of chorus is encompassed by a single person (Theda Hammel, who also splits credit for sound design with Chris Giarmo, who played the role in previous incarnations), who comments on the action from the tech booth throughout before ascending to the playing ground in the impactful closing moments.

Even with a stage covered with death, Antigonick remains fun to experience, an intriguing sample of Big Dance Theatre’s skill in blending low-brow with high. Maybe the thirty-minute run-time helps with that, given that nothing has to sustain itself for too long. But by the time the last dance rolls around, you might find yourself wishing you could just stay in your seat while the ushers come out with wine and stuffed grape leaves (an advertised “Dionysian Libation” that helps with the transition between the 7 pm crowd and 8:30 pm crowd) and watch them play the whole thing again.

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