A well-kempt young man adorned in a loin cloth and caked in red paint rests ceremoniously on a hemp mat while a young girl dressed in a short silk dress shuffles harshly around the theatre, hysterically addressing a doll in an entreating tone.
A Greek classic originally conceived by Sophocles, adapted more recently by Seamus Heaney and further interpreted by its director, Eyad Houssami ’07, “Antigone” has been transformed into a surreal and confounding experience. The production incorporates elements so outlandish that our minds engage every analytic tool to its fullest capacity, and yet still fail to assimilate the performance; its transfigured vision produces pangs of both frustration and wonder.
Houssami’s adaptation is, for the most part, faithful to the fundamental storyline. Antigone (Tara Rodman ’07), the ill-fated daughter of the infamous Oedipus, defies the edict of her uncle King Creon (Paul Spera ’08) by burying the body of her brother, Polyneices (Matthew Strother ’08), a traitor to the state according to Creon. As a result of her rebellious and stubborn nature, she and her fiancee, Creon’s son Haemon (Michael Leibenluft ’10) eventually come to a classically tragic end.
The cast is mostly adequate but lacks any shining performances, although in a production bountiful with such oddities and mystifying representations, they can be lauded just for implementing their roles.
Rodman bravely takes on the complicated psyche of Antigone, her despair and defiance showing through her impetuous expressions and angered speech. But she appears to take joy in her fate to such an extent that it is difficult to feel any sort of pity. Spera’s Creon bizarrely evolves into a trinity of sorts: the mouth, the face and the body, each of which is revealed as the play ensues. This is a test of acting that Spera successfully passes, continually displaying both haughtiness and ignorance.
In the midst of this otherworldly scenario, Polyneices awakens from his slumber to sing and escort Antigone to her death, and Strother fares well, appearing convincingly complacent in his death.
Looking on throughout the tragedy, the finely tailored chorus sits together as a committee, advising and questioning both sides of the conflict mechanically without a hint of emotion. And yet, when speaking at large about the relationship between men and gods or praising the name of Dionysus, they sing and perform in an organized and yet passionate manner.
There are certain moments in the production that display Heaney’s cunning and Houssami’s imagination, particularly when the image of Antigone as the “Bride of Death” is taken literally. A wedding cake is unexpectedly unveiled during the climatic scene while Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” plays softly in the background.
Set designer Emma Lunbeck ’08 creates a simple and unrestrained set, turning the entire theater into a stage. The audience functions as the outside world looking on through translucent palace walls into the royal court on stage. The dialogues in the palace are turned into hearings straight out of an Orwellian novel. Creon sits atop a ladder while his subjects, like the Guard (Vidur Sehgal ’10), are spotlighted in front of a microphone, staring ambiguously out into the audience. Curiously, Tiresias (Jenny Nissel ’08) works at his altar above them all, staring down as the tragedy unfolds.
The dim and dark effects of lighting designer Valerie Cervantes ’08, along with the original compositions of sound designer Jonathan Davenport ’07, create an eerie presence in the theatre, as if a sacred and ancient ritual is being carried out. The costumes, created by Eunice Cho ’07, Adele Li ’09 and Elena Goldblatt ’10, are intricate, illustrative and particularly successful in making Creon appear both clownish and majestic. With Antigone crying red tears of blood, the startling make-up (Goldblatt) helps to convey the actor’s expressions.
One of Aristotle’s fundamentals of tragedy is that the play must provoke a catharsis in the audience and “Antigone” surely succeeds in this endeavor. Although the production is at times perplexing and limited in its transparency, it still provides a healthy, interesting and productive adaptation of a play that often receives repetitive analysis and bland interpretations. From the semi-nude Polyneices to the homage paid to Kabuki, Houssami leaves no room for the humdrum.