BWW Review: Greek Family Tragedy Receives a Contemporary Spin in ANTIGONE
Young People's Theatre closes their season with the world premiere of Jeff Ho's ANTIGONE, which stands as an impressive contemporary take on Sophocles' classic play. The story begins with the title character's brother Neikes (Jeff Yung) leading a breakout from the re-education facility he's held in alongside his friend Haemon (Simon Gagnon). Before he can escape and lead the demonstration against the facility in the city's sacred square, he is met by the headmistress Tiresia (Soo Garay) who allows him to leave relatively easily, swayed by the memory of his mother who's been left as a "ghost in a shell" after heavy re-education. Yung offers an intense yet endearing depiction of the rebel, and regardless of his placement within the in-the-round theatre commands attention.
In another part of the city, his sisters Antigone (Jasmine Chen) and Ismene (Rachel Mutombo) wait for news of the protest from their father Kreon (John Ng). Chen is stellar in the title role, balancing the fiery nature of Antigone with raw grief and anger after learning that both Neikes and her other brother Teo (Aldrin Bundoc) were killed in the square. As the story progresses and Antigone becomes more defiant of her father's orders, preventing families from retrieving bodies from the square in favour of bulldozing them into mass graves, Ng and Chen deliver a range of strong exchanges that lean heavily on concepts of familial respect and shame. Ng is a cold, calculated presence in the narrative and is a true antagonist to Chen's empathetic, passionate heroine.
Mutombo's Ismene is the cool, collected (and possibly elder) sister whose adherence to rules and unwillingness to indulge Antigone's headstrong ideas might make her unlikeable to some audiences. Despite this, Mutombo is an engaging Ismene and delivers a number of comedic lines perfectly to break up frantic moments, doing so with great facial emoting. Another standout member of the ensemble is the guard (Christopher Allen) whose bumbling, nervous actions earn the biggest laughs of the night. Allen excels at the comedic requirements of the role but proves his ability to traverse a complex narrative by supporting high-risk moments in the story's climax.
In this production, directors Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo implement numerous references to the 2014 student protests in Hong Kong, referred to as the umbrella movement, and to the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Within the minimal staging, umbrellas are used to symbolize guns, tanks, bulldozers and dead bodies to great effect.
While it's never confirmed that the play is set in China, choices made in costuming and set design (both by Christine Urquhart), when contrasted to the script, suggest that the world Antigone and her family live in is similar to our understanding of the country. Large red and gold banners adorn the walls, and the Mao-style tunic suits in muted grey - some with red lapels - create a believable environment for the story, bringing the traditional Greek tragedy into A Contemporary Theatre setting successfully.
The use of lighting within the stage floor (lighting design by Rebecca Picherack) allowed for an interesting representation of the divide between protestors and state guards during confrontation scenes. Sound design (David Mesiha) was highly effective throughout, but especially so in one scene where ominous warnings were delivered through mounted megaphones. The interactions between protestors and civilians caught in the middle of the action create a gripping scene that serves to remind audiences of the needlessness to the killings, making Kreon's cruel 'burial' plans all the more inhumane.
While the play is designed for audiences aged 12 to 18, some of the more political or cultural references made in ANTIGONE might go over their heads. However, the themes of oppression, standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves, and making difficult choices in the face of adversity are themes that any audience member can understand. In Ho's script, young people are given the platform to alter their world, and Young People's Theatre's production ensures these core messages are presented in a highly-engaging manner.
ANTIGONE runs through May 16 at the Young People's Theatre, 165 Front St. East, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca/shows-tickets/antigone/
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann