There’s a terrible resonance to the story of a young woman who stands alone against an oppressive government. Shotgun Players’ Antigonick is the third bold new interpretation of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy Antigone to be produced by a Bay Area theater in the last couple of months; African-American Shakespeare Company’s Xtigone and the Cutting Ball Theater’s Antigone both premiered in February. For anyone lucky enough to catch all three, there’s been nothing repetitive about the experience. The bones of the story are the same, but the meat of each has a drastically different flavor.
Antigone, a princess of Thebes, is the daughter of king Oedipus. During a civil war that starts after the king's death, his two sons, Antigone's brothers, kill one another. The new king, her uncle Kreon, decrees that one brother be buried with honor and the other be left to rot as a traitor. Antigone defies this law and buries her brother, and both she and the king must pay the price for their stubbornness.
Antigonick is a startling reinvention of the classic story and a marvelous kick-off to Shotgun's 2015 season made up of plays by women playwrights. Canadian poet and classics scholar Anne Carson (a MacArthur “genius” grantee) calls her play a translation of Sophocles’ original, but she's "translated" with a pretty free hand. Antigone and her sister Ismene discuss Hegel's and Brecht’s interpretations of their story. There’s a lot of discussion of what particular words mean, and one important speech is reduced to a single word. Carson’s language is continually fresh and surprising; the famous “numberless are the world’s wonders” speech becomes, “Many terribly quiet customers exist, but none more terribly quiet than man.” The text is very, very pared down. Even with extended passages of pure movement, Shotgun’s production runs only an hour and 15 minutes.
Antigonick was conceived not as a script to be performed but as an illustrated book, published in 2012 by New Directions. The text is all handwritten in capital letters, often in big blocks of text, with new speakers coming in without a line break. Sometimes there are long stretches of white space on the page, usually in mid-sentence.
Then there are the book’s illustrations by Bianca Stone, which don’t seem to have anything to do with the story and were reportedly inserted between the pages at random by Robert Currie, the book designer and Carson’s husband. The images show people with cinderblock heads, spools of thread, lonesome shacks, surreal landscapes and a lot of horses. (Carson has since followed the book up with a more traditional translation of Antigone that’s currently playing in London and stars Juliette Binoche.)
In short, there’s a lot of interpretation necessary for any director intrepid enough to tackle Antigonick. Shotgun’s production has two co-directors: the always inventive Mark Jackson and choreographer Hope Mohr. Both have intensely physical styles, so it’s no surprise that their staging takes the form of a spellbinding piece of dance theater.
What is surprising, and initially jarring, is how literally the directors have translated the book and its layout. The dense blocks of dialogue are recited quickly, almost robotically, with performers staring straight ahead with impassive expressions on their faces instead of looking at each other. The large stretches of white space on the page become very long pauses in unexpected, eerily unnatural places in the middle of sentences. That all takes some getting used to, especially for the majority of audience members who haven’t seen the book and don’t know where the pauses are coming from. (A few sample pages and illustrations do hang in the corridor on the way into the theater.)
Stone’s surreal illustrations, on the other hand, find their way into the staging only in subtle ways. Occasionally her artwork is echoed in the stance of a character, but not in the costumes or scenery. Nina Ball’s elegantly simple set consists of a bare blond wood floor that slopes to become the back wall. The only obvious nod to Stone’s imagery is a roughly life-size horse hanging upside-down above the stage on a rope, never to be acknowledged in the course of the play.
This version of the Antigone story adds one new character: Nick. Carson mentions him only twice in her text and tells us nothing about him except that he’s a silent character who’s always onstage “measuring things.” Why Nick? Well, there’s a lot of talk in this adaptation about “the nick of time” and what that phrase means, so perhaps Nick represents the passage of time.
Shotgun’s Nick is Parker Murphy, a silent, omnipresent dancer who doesn’t appear to be measuring things in any literal sense. He’s always watching, often mirroring characters’ movements and occasionally giving them a helping hand.
Rami Margron makes a riveting Antigone. Impassive and soldierly when she speaks but in her dancing jerky, writhing and staggering. Her opening dialogue with Monique Jenkinson as her concerned sister, Ismene, is first barked out quickly in a steady stream of verbiage, then repeated from the top more slowly and comprehensibly, though still in a manner that's far from naturalistic. Their synchronized, abstract movements eventually become a frenzied game of hopscotch under the oppressive, ominous music pervading Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design. Margron is also compelling as the scolding blind prophet, Tiresias.
Kevin Clarke’s Kreon is anxious and unsteady, reciting his lists of words for today as if giving himself a pep talk: "Here are Kreon's nouns: reason, treason, death, ship of state, mine." As the Greek chorus commenting on the action, David Sinaiko is both melancholy and sardonic, mocking the foolishness taking place before him while bemoaning the consequences. Kenny Toll does triple duty as a nervous, nebbishy guard, a grim messenger and a furious Haimon, Kreon’s son, who’s also Antigone’s fiancé.
In Sophocles’ play, the character of Kreon’s wife, Eurydike, seems almost like an afterthought. She shows up only at the very end to deliver a single speech, bewailing a death and deepening the tragedy. In Antigonick this scene becomes truly unforgettable. Jenkinson emerges in darkness as the shellshocked Eurydike, delivering her speech in the harsh light of a camcorder, her face projected behind her. Then she does a jaw-dropping dance of despair--clothes flying, spittle hanging from her mouth, almost like a seizure. It’s devastating.
Jackson and Mohr’s production is full of these magical moments. People throw themselves at the rear wall, striving to climb it, only to tumble down again and again. Sometimes an important speech will be repeated twice, spoken the first time by an individual and then echoed in song by the ensemble. Like the long pauses and the stylized movements, much of it may be puzzling on a literal level, but what’s remarkable is how well it all works on a visceral one. If we learn nothing else from Antigone, it’s that sometimes you have to break all the rules to do what feels right, and this Antigonick does that magnificently.
Antigonick runs through April 25, 2015 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit shotgunplayers.org.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED