Review: Antigonick by Mary Moody Northen Theatre
by Michael Meigs
A long time ago, distinguished Classics professor Dr. Charles Stow commented to his Greek Theatre class, "No one performs these plays they way they were written." That was a scholar's somber statement of fact. In antiquity, three masked actors stood in the amphitheatre and declaimed. A chorus stood unmoving and responded in strophes, with the chorus leader sometimes speaking individually. Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides used formal language to explore legends deeply familiar to the entire audience. They focused on moral dilemmas, tragic flaws, and fate.
Very few of their plays survived. So few, in fact, that the translations of all extant texts could be collected in The Complete Greek Drama, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O'Neill Jr. (yes, the son of the renowned U.S. playwright) and published in 1938 by Random House. That was the textbook for our class. I've kept it for half a century.
I was tempted to pull out some lines from Jebb's somewhat 19th-century-style translation but decided against that. Without Anne Carson's script for Antigonick in hand, I can't compare them directly. Carson's version contains some beautiful language, but I haven't retained enough to quote from it. In the magic space of the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, it went by in a rush.
In sound and fury, it did, as Yoda might comment. But full of significance.
I became aware of the the tangled legends of the House of Atreus as I began to study the literature of the drama. Those and other myths evoked, reworked, and enshrined by Homer and the great dramatists were fundamental to the Greek people's understanding of themselves and their place in the universe. Much like the Bible for us—although now biblical tales also are beginning to fade. Lane Anthony Flores provides a useful couple of pages of comment on the story and adaptation in the MMNT program ("Some Notes on Doors"), including a complicated, mostly irrelevant geneaological chart.
The virtue of the staging directed by Alexandra Bassiakou Shaw is that its pace, choreography, and occasional absurdist elements kept the full house rapt throughout. Mostly undergraduates, the spectators were thoroughly entertained by the tale. But racing action gives little time for thought; exquisite lines flashed and then disappeared. For example, the tall young woman in the chorus sat on the eastern stairs and delivered a striking description that I yearned to capture but couldn't; Marie Ritchie as Euridice of Thebes, Creon's wife, appeared briefly high above us in the southeast corner of the space to deliver a lamentation of which not a word remains in memory. (Also confusing: her character doesn't appear in Flores's chart).
Anne Carson's adaptation contains references to that of Brecht and to elements from Hegel, we're told, both by Flores and in the play's opening speech. Claire Lane, who will play Antigone, confidently delivers a short lecture that is clearly the voice of the translator. The confusion created by this pedagogical set-up fades and is mostly forgotten as Lane steps into the persona of the titular stubborn and perhaps tragic protagonist. (Probably not; she has no tragic flaw—but that's a debate for academicians.)
I'd much have preferred to see invited Equity artist Kia Zhani deliver that prologue. She participates in the ensemble throughout and is powerful in her brief appearance as the messenger reporting offstage events.
Juan Diego Chaparro appears as a bespangled transgendered cowgirl Teiresias the blind prophet. That's a clever interpretation and appropriate for the wild seer, said by legend to have been transformed into a woman for seven years.
Events and commentary sped by, with much the same effects as Matt Hislope's entrance as Creon the autocrat, riding on a scooter and scattering confetti. The highly mic'd and often distorted sound created a rock concert ambiance. Imprecise diction and, above all, the lack of pauses washed away the poetry and moral reflections.
Antigonick was a glittering enticement to the strange and wonderful world of Greek drama, but not a production that adequately addressed the essential question of the legend: does one owe allegiance to human authority or to a deeply established moral code? Should the people accept Creon's sacrilege of leaving one combattant unburied or Antigone's defiance and disobedience of an unjust and autocratic law?
If those questions seem abstruse, one need only turn to the fierce polarization both in our own country and abroad between autocracy and the as yet feeble resistence of those who favor a rules-based society and framework of international relations. And perhaps peer a little more deeply into the moral universe of the ancient Greek poets.
September 21 - October 01, 2023
3001 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX, 78704
September 21 - October 1, 2023
Thursdays - Sundays
Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward's University, Austin