note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
These two contrasting looks at Greek tragedy have their flaws but, separately or together, are interesting experiments in bringing classical theatre into the 21st century; one goes for out-and-out contemporizing, the other is a stylized nod to the past.
Guard; Chorus … Ed Peed
Antigone … Marianna Bassham
Ismene; Chorus … Jessica Burke
Polynices; Messenger; Chorus … Eric Mello
Tiresias; Chorus … Sylvia Ann Soares
Cassie; Eurydice; Chorus … Donna Sorbello
Haemon; Chorus … Jim Spencer
Creon … Richard McElvain
The Boy … David Kaim
In his program notes, Richard McElvain asks, “Have any of you been thinking about ANTIGONE these days?” Clearly Mr. McElvain has, with his own eye on Creon, the tyrant king of Thebes --- in his updating of Sophocles’ tragedy, Mr. McElvain pulls out all the stops: his Creon rants and raves, bullies and bellows, commands from the eye of the storm then proceeds to put Hurricane Ivan to shame, collapses in bloody grief over Haemon’s corpse, and runs the gamut from snake eyes to crumpled newspaper --- it’s a hell of a performance. Mr. McElvain may not realize it but he is also giving an uncanny impersonation of a well-known character actor in the movies. Actors should be judged on their own merits, of course, but there are times when one actor may suddenly remind you of another which can put blinkers on a performance and throw a different kind of spotlight on the actor emoting before you: how much of his own technique has been begged, borrowed or stolen? Looking back at his performance in DUBLIN CAROL which earned him an Addison, I can happily say that there Mr. McElvain was his own man and the evening, a personal triumph; I will indulge him, for now --- should Mr. McElvain continue channeling, I hope he’ll take requests.
Plotwise, Mr. McElvain is faithful to Sophocles: Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, still defies her uncle and buries her traitorous brother Polynices on pain of death; Mr. McElvain parts company by converting the verse to today's speech patterns (instead of declaiming, most of his actors now shout) but retains a singing/chanting Chorus --- “Fuck talk!” cries his heroine to Ismene (“fuck”, in this context, being used as a verb, not an adjective); in doing so, himself, Mr. McElvain comes up with a dysfunctional celebrity family where Antigone is rebellious youth in a leather jacket and Creon a media-savvy fascist surrounded by a four-eyed staff (actually, Mr. McElvain’s take is closer to Jean Anouilh’s modern-dress version with its not-so-veiled attack on 1940s fascism). There are jarring moments in Mr. McElvain’s evening --- Oedipus being called “Daddy” and Antigone, “Tiggy”; the pagan gods still being summoned or denounced --- and risible ones, such as a Chorus member suddenly crooning, “Here comes Creon….” just before the latter makes his final entrance. The real insights come not from the updating but from Mr. McElvain, himself: “I love Greek Theater and seeing it in production. But, more often than not, when I see these productions --- even the very best ones --- there is a sense of distance that I find unsatisfying. We seem to be watching “them” and “their” problems.” The Greek playwrights and actors did use distancing effects, as their theatre evolved from ritual: men in women’s roles, spoken and sung verse, masks and cothurni to make the players iconographic and larger than life, the unities of time and place; and plots that had already passed into legend. American drama evolved through indoor realism, concentrating on “little” people, with passion gradually being beaten out of doors --- where are the crossroads between these two forms of theatres; that is, if there are any? (Mr. Anouilh’s tragedy succeeds because he had the golden age of Racine as middleman between Euripides and himself.) Mr. McElvain has pared the Antigone legend down to its timeless bones but cannot break them into a new structure; he ends up hanging realism’s rags upon them, instead, and one cannot reach a catharsis with a scarecrow --- by reducing the grandeur of the Greeks, Mr. McElvain also lowers the emotional temperature of the audience. Ironically, he creates his own distance.
But there are shining moments, as well: in realism’s corner, Marianna Bassham makes a good, abrasive Antigone (she now hangs herself before Creon goes to rescue her, hanging dramatic suspense alongside her) and Ed Peed generates easy laughs as a cracker Guard. On the classical side, Sylvia Ann Soares and Donna Sorbello have the stature for tragedy along with voices to match. Ms. Soares’ Tiresias is sudden granite thrust up from the crying earth while Ms. Sorbello, a willowy tragedienne, is a brief but unforgettable Eurydice, frozen in shock at the Messenger’s news (the theatre’s air conditioning gently rippling the hem of her dress) and then beautiful in a death-sleep that could have been painted by one of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Only days ago I read that Lordan (f/k/a Laura) Napoli, currently appearing in New Rep’s APPROACHING MOOMTAJ, is now a New York-based actress; ANTIGONE’s program states that with this production Jessica Burke plans to “wrap up her stay in Boston”. Ms. Burke’s cool flame has caught my eye each time she has appeared on a stage, often in offbeat entertainments, and I am saddened to think that her unique glow will soon be flickering elsewhere, wherever “elsewhere” may be: actors must follow their dreams --- and their paychecks.
Salt Maiden … Josie Bray
Salt Maiden … Eliza Bent
Salt Maiden … Junko Goda
Queen Hecuba of Troy … Mia Anderson
Boy, Son of Lampros … Khalil Flemming
Lampros, Trojan Boatman … Robert Bonotto
Odysseus … Gus Kelley
Helenus, Trojan Priest … Adam Winegarden
Shamisen; Voice … Sumie Kaneko
Drums (Kendang; Mbutu) … Sean Mannion
Flute … Tomoko Terai
Gender … Sachi Sato / Miranda Fan
Lisa Maurizio’s THE MEMORY OF SALT, her ritualizing of Hecuba, Queen of Troy, demanding the body of the last of her fallen sons for burial, is closer to what classical Tragedy is about but jars in its own well-intentioned way: Hecuba’s woes and confrontations are Greek enough but surrounded by three Japanese ghosts and the trapping of Noh theatre. Thus there is much passionate declamation among the racially mixed ensemble, backed up by Asian dance, instrumentals and vocalizing. Apart from creating a rainbow bridge between East and West, I can see no reason why these oil-and-water styles have been brought together when each culture’s technique would have been welcome and have made better sense, separately; despite Ms. Maurizio and her director’s constant stirrings, the two styles only separate, again and again.
Mia Anderson, an earthy comedienne, elsewhere, gets through Hecuba’s arias by plunging into the torrents and getting to the other side through equal doses of volume and heartfelt sincerity. In contrast, Robert Bonotto’s portrayal of a vacillating boatman seems effortless with his clean, piercing tenor bobbing up and down on the surface of the words. Khalil Flemming, an astonishing child actor, conjures up an image from another era, altogether: the boy player of Shakespeare’s time. I always wonder how could prepubescent children take on the gallery of the Bard’s female characters --- Master Flemming, with his shy poise and bell-like tones, gives enough hints that not only was such a convention possible, it existed.
Kenneth Jewell has come up with one of the year’s most exotic-looking set designs: a giant raked box of sand ringed by planked ramps with the four musicians/singers displayed upstage. The sand is so beautifully raked that one winces when the ensemble steps in, destroying the patterns, but Drama, like Life, thrives on conflict, and conflict often proves to be messy.
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