Antigone is fresh to death

The power of the Dramat’s (Yale Dramatic Association’s) production of Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone” lies in its freshness. And this freshness begins with the cast, two-thirds of whom are first-time freshman: They bring to the stage an unstudied air that is ideal for communicating the visceral concerns of the play.

Antigone asks at one point: “We all have our parts to play – those are our roles. What can we do about it?” The Dramat’s implicit answer reverberates wonderfully around the Yale Repertory Theatre: a helluva lot.

Laurel Durning-Hammond ’14 plays Antigone with superb range: She is electric enough to jolt our emotion when she needs to, but she can play a willful child or wax philosophical just as well.

Another thing that makes the play so crispy is its language. While the plot of Sophocles’ version is rather similar, most translations of the ancient Greek are far less stimulating than the imaginative modern vernacular Anouilh employs here. David Grene and Richard Lattimore – the conventional translators beloved by humanities professors everywhere – are simply no match here. And fortunately, Hunter Wolk ’12 and Christopher Bakes ’14 take good advantage of the play’s inventive language in their roles of Creon and the Head Guard, respectively. While the bureaucratic-infested jargon that Creon spurts echoes the collapsing old world order of the play, the locker-room banter of the Head Guard – littered as it is with sexual innuendo – places “Antigone” thoroughly and disturbingly in our time.

That is not to say that a character like Creon is no longer relevant to us. His biting cynicism – “nothing people say is truth” – commingled with his desire to uphold what “comes with the job” make him a model of the modern administrator, one who is given apt foils in his frighteningly affirmative page (Kate Heaney ’14) and his generally incompetent guards (Connor Lounsbury ’14 and Ryan Bowers ’14). Creon is not, however, devoid of humanity; the image of him, visibly broken on-stage, is enough to convince the audience that no one is exempt from feeling.

Beyond Creon’s woes, the human core of the play revolves around the exchanges Antigone enters into with three other characters: her fiancé Haemon (Elias Kleinbock ’14), her sister Ismene (Olivia Scicolone ’14), and her nurse (Molly Houlahan ’14).

Scenes involving Haemon and Antigone are among the most powerful in the entire play. It is difficult, for instance, not to feel the gut-wrenching words that Antigone says to her love, “I wanted to be your wife because I love you so much…because I’m never going to marry you”; we see Haemon stunned, splintered to alternating states of madness that Kleinbock spiritedly sustains. It is a pitiful – yet altogether beautiful – sight, for Haemon is the good in a world that otherwise rejects such simple categories as good and evil.

Equally paradoxical is Ismene, who vacillates on just about everything. She can’t decide whether or not to lend her support to Antigone’s plans to bury their brother. She can’t decide whether or not to defer to Antigone in attraction and merit. This production, too, can’t seem to decide on how committed it is to Ismene. A robust opening exchange gives Scicolone a chance to establish her character’s dilemma – which she does well – but from thereon, Ismene seems to recede into the background, depriving us of a fuller image of this character caught between powers greater than her own.

Though the Nurse only appears at the beginning of the play, the way her dialogue with Antigone brings home the oikos, the home, to us, is delightful. She is the annoying advocate of patriarchy, as we notice when she tells Antigone: “It’s proper for men to live and die by their ideas. You’re a girl.” Antigone is the disobedient far-too-young-feminist child. Yet the pathos of this domestic scene lies in the fact that there will be no more of them – with the deaths at the close of the play, we are left to imagine the desolate household that remains.

We fortunately need not imagine desolation on-stage – it is already there, thanks to a sharp set by Oren Stevens ’11 that combines the jagged with the geometric in a way that suits this play of pain and power. Director Leah Osterman ’13 uses this stage well. A wicked energy flows throughout, and though there are some inconsistencies in the production, these are not enough to divert the course of this play: it moves ahead with a relentless sensation of movement, a building feeling of the tragedy that we feel all too well.

And that brings us, finally, to the strangest of all the characters in this play: the Prologue, subtly played by Mitchel Kawash ’12. The Prologue charts the arc of the play at the very beginning, intercedes into the action with his commentary, and brings the play to a close. In doing so, he prepares us for the tragedy – we know full well what’s going to happen, though that doesn’t diminish the power of the play – and haunts us with the frighteningly real psyches he translates into speech. He knows the genre intimately: “That’s tragedy – you just sit back and watch it go – it’s a well oiled machine”. He could well have replaced me as the critic.

But the same could be said of “Antigone” as a whole: its self-referential construction makes it a meaningful comment on tragedy itself. The Dramat succeeds here because it pays heed to Antigone’s words: “It’s too easy to say no”. This production succeeds because it says yes: yes to new things, yes to the diversity of human experience, and most importantly, yes to the tragedy that underlies it all.

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