BWW Reviews: Glass Mind's ANTIGONE Perfects the Art of Tragedy
No one writes theater like the Ancient Greeks; after all, they invented it (at least the western variety). I was reminded of this once again as I found myself lost in the high drama of Glass Mind Theatre's adaptation of Antigone, one of Sophocles' three plays revolving around Oedipus (he of psychological complex fame), king of Thebes, who unknowingly killed his father and then married his mother. And it only gets better from there.
I remember being completely intimidated when faced with an assigned reading of Antigone in 10th grade, and then finding myself surprisingly and completely engaged by its exquisite, perfect tragedy. And so, nearly two decades later, I found myself again, as I watched the sad story unravel on an adapted thrust stage, surrounded by a packed house on three sides, in a cavernous space in the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District.
In this version--which relies on five versatile actors to depict 10 characters and which borrows from Sophocles' two other Theban plays, Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus--all of the action takes place on a minimalist set in an open area between two columns and before a simple, shrouded platform of three short steps. The actors also weave themselves behind and through the rows of seating, extending the set into the audience.
The time period is unknown. Based on the hairstyles, it could be deep in the punk-laden decade of the 1980s; given the costuming--simple yet suggestive, involving strips of fabric in red, white and black, pinned and tucked here and there--it could be some sort of Mad Max-esque dystopic future. But from the way the characters express themselves, eloquently, profoundly and passionately without barely a second thought, it's clearly an era when people placed a premium on the value of verbal communication. Perhaps the point is that the story is timeless and Sophocles' messages about the power of decisions, about humankind's belief in destiny and fate, and about familial love run true, no matter the point in human history.
We meet Oedipus (played skillfully by Matthew Casella who also portrays the Messenger) first, as he feels his way onto the "stage," his lack of sight indicated by a gauzy blindfold with two dark circles painted where the eyes would be. Knowing a bit of the backstory certainly helps here: Oedipus has blinded himself upon learning that he has married and borne children with the woman who was both his wife and his biological mother, Jocasta.
Casella's powerful performance in this scene, as Oedipus curses his mother, sets the tone for the entire production and a high bar for the other actors. But they don't disappoint. Of particular note is Vince Constantino, who portrays the blind prophet Teiresias in addition to Polyneices, one of Antigone's dead brothers, and to Haemon, Antigone's love interest and son of Creon, current king of Thebes, who happens to be Antigone's uncle and her great-uncle in this confusing soap opera well before its time. Constantino convincingly evokes characters who are equal parts tender and wise, and his facial expressions alone are riveting. His Teiresias is delightfully creepy, as soothsayers tend to be, and Constantino infuses the character with a calm haughtiness that exudes power despite his physical frailty. Spencer Nelson also does an exceptional job with the title character; she revels in Antigone's strength and feminism, infusing the unlikely heroine with modern tenacity.
As this mash-up of Theban plays unravels, each scene leading step by step to the phenomenally tragic conclusion, characters flow on and off the stage, and here is the significant flaw in Glass Mind's production. Given the confusing relationships tying the characters together (and by no means is it a stretch to say that all of the characters are related, thanks to Oedipus), the company's decision to rely on the same actors to play multiple characters confuses the issue even more. In some scenes, it's not immediately clear if Casella is portraying Oedipus or the Messenger or if Rachel Nutter is playing Jocasta; Ismene, Antigone's ill-fated sister; or Eurydice, Creon's equally ill-fated wife.
Director Lynn Morton, whose passion for Greek theater shines through in this beautiful production, has attempted to distinguish the characters through minor costume changes, but these adjustments are too subtle to assist an audience that may not be familiar with this branch of Greek mythology. And to complicate matters further, Creon is played by a woman, Hannah Fogler. Despite her skill and the intensity with which she embodies the role, it takes a while to adjust to this gender switching.
Still, if you can sit and watch and then read up on the "history" later, you'll find yourself riveted by and lost in this story of all stories, one that marries (pun intended) classic themes of pride, power, love, fear, consequence, devotion and despair. May the gods smile upon you as you do.
Antigone runs Friday-Sunday through next Sunday, Aug. 25, at EMP Collective, 307 W. Baltimore St. Its next production, Fallbeil, opens Nov. 15 at the Strand Theater. For more information, visit www.glassmindtheatre.com.
Photos courtesy of Glass Mind Theatre.