A woman in broken overalls points a rifle up, fires and watches as a bloodied and stuffed squirrel drops to her feet. Waxing philosophic, she wonders aloud where squirrels go after they die.
“Hillbilly Antigone,” written by Chicago playwright Rick Sims, is a modernized mock-up of its namesake Greek tragedy, dubiously set in the banjo- and rifle-infested hills of Kentucky. King Creon’s Appalachian analog, Creon (pronounced CRAY-uhn) Waller (Brian Hastert DRA ’09) is waging a sort of private holy war against the Flick family. From the pulpit he preaches anti-industrialization, citing the Flicks, who work for the local railroad, as examples of progressive devilry while his son courts Antigone Flick (Brooke Parks DRA ’08) behind his back.
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The framework of Sophocles’ tragedy translates rather well to this American setting, and Sims sacrifices very little in the transition. Grandma Tiresias (Ji-Youn Chang DRA ’08) stands in for the blind prophet, screeching in tongues during church services; the Olympians are replaced by a Christian God with the same perverted sense of humor. The result is a surprisingly faithful and relevant retelling, a play that stands firmly independent of its ancient Greek inspiration.
This vital, organic production has a strong sense of unity and individuality. It feels light, unburdened by previous productions and standards, as if this were the first production ever of “Hillbilly Antigone.” Hastert is an ominous, poised Creon with all the slow fluid gestures of a hellfire priest. Dialogue and movements seem spontaneous, never stylized or premeditated, in spite of the exaggerated, melodramatic tone of the production as a whole.
Though its proximate concern is the distorted culture of a stereotypical hill town, “Hillbilly” comments aptly and sharply on modern political trends. As the local priest and judge, Creon embodies the dangerous combination of religious and political power that is slowly creeping into contemporary American politics. The theocratic power to demonize, ostracize and turn private feuds into holy wars is eerily reminiscent of a rabidly idealistic, moral-majority America.
A vaguely absurdist play, “Hillbilly” relies heavily on hyperbole and a flailing, excessive slapstick. Yet the sagging, revealing overalls and inbred hysterics of its townspeople don’t reduce the play to nonsense or mediocrity. Sims deftly blends his caricatures with real angst and conflict, maintaining a sense of believability in his Southern-twang dialogue.
“Hillbilly” is seamless tragicomedy. Its tragedy is fleeting but pointed, captured in small gestures and inflections followed immediately by reductio ad absurdum. When one character commits suicide, the lights die to reveal a neon red heart glowing over the wound, trivializing the previous moment’s poignancy. The tragedy is almost a subtext, often hidden but periodically pulsing with the rifle fire.
Complete with a washtub bass, the production’s band fills out the bluegrass aesthetic with its clinking mandolins, cowbells and nasal crooning. The music is less the focus of the show than part of the tone, an element that establishes the timbre and pace of the dialogue.
A refreshing escape from stale, typical theater, “Hillbilly Antigone” is a vibrant production that shocks, embarrasses and disturbs. It even makes some interesting points about the squirrel afterlife.