Theater Review - Georgia Shakespeare tunes into the tragedy of Antigone

Words like "honor" and "treason" get tossed around like beanbags in election years, especially this one. The weight of those words, let alone the concepts they signify, seldom register in the flurry to score points in the news cycle.

Sophocles' Antigone, currently playing at Georgia Shakespeare, offers such a powerful object lesson about dissent and sacrifice, it's as though ideals like authority and duty have become flesh to wear flag lapel pins and schoolgirl uniforms. Most Greek tragedies recount family stories. Antigone, however, also presents a conflict in which the family unit and the body politic become synonymous and the demands of the state yank against the ties of blood.

In adapting and directing Antigone, Georgia Shakespeare artistic director Richard Garner runs toward, not away, from its implications in modern politics. Chris Kayser's Creon, King of Thebes, addresses his subjects at the end of a civil war, and a banner reading "Warfare Ended" unfurls behind him in a bit of stagecraft reminiscent of "Mission Accomplished." When characters mention Creon's decisiveness, the phrase "I'm the decider" almost hangs in the air.

With barbed wire fencing and blocky, sand-colored structures, Antigone's set resembles a Middle Eastern war zone. Georgia Shakespeare doesn't just offer a world premiere of a new version of Antigone complete with contemporary signifiers. It's also a musical interpretation, with compositions by Kendall Simpson and lyrics by Simpson and Garner. Georgia Shakespeare's Antigone comes across as an imaginative and often affecting patchwork that ultimately commits to more intriguing ideas than it can handle.

Sophocles used Antigone to conclude his Oedipus trilogy and show the fallout among the incestuous king's surviving relatives. The play begins with a battle for control of Thebes between the late Oedipus' sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. The brothers kill each other on the battlefield, leaving their uncle Creon the next ruler in line. Creon declares Polyneices a traitor and orders the body to be left unburied and exposed to dogs, birds and the elements. Eugene H. Russell IV plays the ghostly Polyneices, and his narration has a more contemporary ring than the other characters' more formal, poetic diction.

Young Antigone (the impassioned Naima Carter Russell) grieves not just for her brothers, but for the officially sanctioned desecration of Polyneices' body. Despite her nervous sister Ismene's (Koqunia Forte) warnings, Antigone resolves to bury her brother and risk becoming an enemy of the state. In one of the production's most moving passages, Antigone reflects that if it were her dead husband or child in that situation, she may not have gone to the same lengths as she did for her brother. "I could have gotten another husband, and I could have had another child."

Antigone emerges as an indelible martyr figure, but Creon may qualify as the play's tragic hero when his harsh, inflexible choices come back to haunt him. Antigone gets arrested for burying her brother, and Creon all but calls her a terrorist for defying his edict, which he equates with the country's "way of life." Kayser conveys the insecurity behind the king's dictatorial decision making, so that Creon seems in over his head and smaller than life. (In a clever touch of costuming, the tip of his necktie sticks out just below his vest, suggesting that Creon's an unprepared pretender in the spotlight.)

His beloved son Haemon (Joe Knezevich) happens to be engaged to Antigone, but Creon condemns her to death nonetheless. When Haemon tries to point out his father's mistakes – "I'm only against you being wrong" – Knezevich's cautious but logical delivery suggests the minefield of disagreeing with the powerful without threatening them. Megan McFarland plays Creon's wife Eurydice as a U.S.-style "First Lady" of Thebes, and demonstrates such a powerful singing voice, it's a shame she doesn't get more songs.

I've heard that in musicals, the numbers come at the points when the feelings reach such a pitch, the characters can't not sing. Greek tragedy would seem perfect for a musical treatment, because it trades in such powerful emotions and fraught situations. Georgia Shakespeare's Antigone, however, doesn't fully embrace the musical format. Long stretches of the play feature no songs, and most of the numbers are extremely short. Simpson composes lovely melodies for the duets between Antigone and her sister and later, Antigone and Haemon, but the half-spoken, half-sung confrontation with Creon at the end of Act One seems more like the stuff of rock opera.

Antigone's most memorable song surprisingly turns out to be based on the "What a piece of work is man" speech from Hamlet – one of several Shakespearean quotes that turn up in the text. Describing mankind as "the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals," the passage makes for a beautiful song out of Hamlet's original context. Antigone ends with a reprise of the number, and unless you consider Hamlet's cynical delivery of the speech in the original Shakespeare, it seems too sweet for Antigone's bitter resolution.

The production features several stirring musical moments such as Antigone's initial lament over her brother's body, which ends with her emitting a wordless cry of grief while sand trickles from her fingers. Throughout the play, Russell plays solo soprano saxophone, and the music's jazzy, blue note quality lingers over the action like a ghostly memory.

Garner directed two of Atlanta's best theatrical productions of recent years, 2006's Metamorphoses at Georgia Shakespeare and Eurydice at the Alliance Hertz Stage, both of which connected mythological stories to modern audiences. Garner's Antigone honors Sophocles' implications for citizenship and sacrifice, but rarely matches the previous shows' timelessness.

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