Mythology goes modern in Augustana’s “Antigone”

The landscape is stark, shrouded in smoke and darkness as Chorus members glide onto the stage and take their places in the stony arena-like setting. This is the place where two brothers have fallen in battle, each at the other’s hand. This is the uneasy atmosphere into which a young girl is thrust, forced to make an impossible decision. And for five nights in Augustana’s Edith Mortenson Theatre this is Thebes – a transformative place stuck in ambiguity between now and then, perched on the edge of catastrophe.

Director Jayna Fitzsimmons’ “Antigone” follows the well-worn path wrought by Sophocles’ pen, while deviating from the ancient poem in notable fashion. The storyline tracks a family cursed by the sins of their father (a man named Oedipus who unknowingly married his own mother), and leaves his offspring to deal with the unwholesome consequences. These include a civil war between two brothers and a battle-scarred city now forced to pick up the pieces after the dust settles. Creon (Claire Avery) is now the uncontested ruler of Thebes, decreeing that if any citizen attempts to bury the body of the disgraced brother they will pay with their life. Antigone (Shelby Larson) is sister to the two fallen warriors, a young woman faced with a deadly impasse: whether to obey her uncle’s unjust law or honor her dead brother with a proper burial – risking her life in the process.

The production itself is a study in contrasts. The amphitheater-like set of ancient Greek plays, presence of a chorus and offstage violence are all traditional Grecian to the core. But with a script adapted into modern English by the actors themselves and gender-neutral casting spotlighting a woman in the male role of Creon, the play shifts into a more contemporary era.

The set, designed by RJ Fitzsimmons, firmly roots “Antigone” in the past, and that’s a good thing. With its imposing stone pillars, circular shape and multiple levels it’s simple, while also commanding a large enough presence to hold a play of such emotional weight. The gray stone covered in leaves is the foundation upon which “Antigone” rests, providing a jumping off point for more radical digressions into modernity soon to come.

Those digressions begin first and foremost with the script, a conglomeration of lilting poetics and contemporary language easily understandable for the audience. It’s uncomplicated while still retaining the beauty that Sophocles intended of his poetry.

This everyday speech has no better instrument than the actors that recite it. Larson’s Antigone is a woman with a personality as fiery as her hair, filled with righteous anger over the deaths of her brothers and the plight in which she now finds herself. Her intense cries full of angst and pain are potent at the outset, but grow tiresome as the play wears on. Larson’s emotion skyrockets to an impossibly high level right from the beginning and stays there, but maybe emotional nuance is not Antigone’s goal here. After all, with two brothers slain and faced with the prospect of imminent death herself, righteous anger may be the only emotion in her arsenal.

In contrast, Avery’s Creon embodies emotional nuance to the core. Fitzsimmons’ choice to cast a woman in the play’s principal male role is a smart one, making the character’s mood swings even more extreme onstage. Wavering between vengeful hatred of those who oppose him, annoyance at lowly subjects’ incompetence and finally regret at the disastrous decisions he’s made in ruling Thebes – Avery’s portrayal illustrates the complete transformation Creon undergoes throughout the play. She’s allowing the audience into his plight, and even though her Creon is unlikable at best for the majority of “Antigone,” he’s also the most relatable character onstage. Creon, in his dark business suit and thick winged eyeliner, is surprisingly more human than Antigone, despite the hardened façade. In the end, when the suit jacket finally does come off, the king’s weakness is also exposed – revealing for the first time the vulnerability we knew was there all along. Antigone may own the title, but Avery’s Creon owns this play.

A few production experiments don’t work quite as well as the gender-neutral casting. One is the actor-less clothing. Meant to represent the play’s fallen, clothes are repeatedly carried and cried over, a nice solution to the problem of having actors play dead, but it looks silly nonetheless when Antigone sobs into a pair of pants.

A second production choice involves the chorus of Greek citizens. Their presence is a pointed nod to the Greek tragedy staple, but at times their monologues can be confusing. Instead of the authority intended from group-recited lines, the end result is often jumbled and the meaning lost in the scuffle.

“Antigone” ends just as it began: in darkness. For a runtime of just an hour and ten minutes the play’s desolation is quick to envelope, but really, isn’t that the goal – to transport an audience to a place as corrupt as Thebes so that like Creon they too must rethink their choices in order to make it out again.

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