Like Hydra, the many-headed snake of Greek mythology, the faces of tyranny and oppression seem numerous in our world. Chop off one head, and two more appear. So it's ironically appropriate that the Classical Greek Theatre Festival has chosen Sophocles' "Antigone" for this year's production. As L. L. West points out in his director's notes, Antigone was one of the first political protesters.
Her story is also one of the most familiar of the Greek tragedies to contemporary audiences because modern writers ranging from Jean Anouilh to Seamus Heaney have adapted it. A young woman, one of the last remnants of a once-powerful, but now fallen, family, defies the edict of an autocratic ruler to bury the body of her brother.
The conflict is clear: Do family obligations and religious convictions supersede civil law and order? And if they do, what are the personal and political repercussions? Making the situation murkier, however, are the inflexible personalities of the two people involved Antigone and Creon and the extremity of their positions. They are unwilling or perhaps unable to compromise or even communicate with each other.
Marianne McDonald's translation makes the play accessible but is sometimes too colloquial: Sophocles' poetry, especially in the choral passages, falls victim to 21st-century relevance. To make the play even timelier, West gives the production an Arab Spring setting; Philip Lowe's eclectic costumes and Mikal Troy Klee's multidimensional sound design capture today's Middle East, where old coexists with new.
But the result is mixed. McDonald's characterizations of Antigone and Creon verge on the hysterical at times, making it difficult to feel completely comfortable with either position or fully empathize with the characters. Creon's rants that "no woman will tell me what to do" make him sound petty, and Antigone's rigidity verges on obsession.
The production's use of cell phones and texting is clever but begins to seem overwhelming and ironically distances us from the action. And rearranging the mesh barricades that make up Spencer Brown's set when it's impossible to see the difference becomes distracting.
However, the power and consistency of the performances make these drawbacks seem less important. Annie Brings' Antigone and Jared Thomson's Creon are impassioned and well-matched adversaries, taking turns commanding the stage. Hailey Henderson conveys the desperation of Ismene, who knows she is trapped in an untenable situation, and Connor Montgomery's Haemon transitions deftly between trying to reason with his father and dissolving in frustration when he can't. Holly Fowers is especially impressive as the blind seer Teiresia, neatly balancing the dual calls of compassion and condemnation. It's a nice touch to have a woman play this role. Conor Thompson's blabber-mouthed guard injects a touch of welcome humor, and Tamara Howell, Vicki Pugmire, and Wyatt McNeill complete the eloquent chorus.
West cleverly makes the most of a small cast by double-casting roles, and his taut direction crackles with tension. Darlene Casanova's always-in-motion choreography expressively blends Eastern and Western influences.
Unfortunately, it appears that the story of "Antigone" will never become outdated. We would do well to heed Greek tragedy's call for moderation, a watchword that's sadly missing in our modern world.
The Classical Greek Theatre Festival's powerhouse production of "Antigone" testifies to this tragedy's unending timeliness.
When • Reviewed on Sept. 22; continues Saturday, Sept. 29 and Sunday, Sept. 30 at 9 a.m.
Where • Red Butte Garden, 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City; access the amphitheater through Fort Douglas or Research Park.
Running time • 75 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets • $15, $11 for Westminster faculty and staff, $8 for students; available at the gate or at 801-832-2457. For more information, visit www.westminstercollege.edu/greek_theatre
Also • Go 30 minutes early to hear an introduction by festival founder Jim Svendsen.