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Theatre in Review: Antigone (Classical Theatre of Harlem)

Alexandra King. Photo: Richard Termine.

For its summertime offering in Marcus Garvey Park, The Classical Theatre of Harlem presents a vividly contemporary twist on a Sophoclean tragedy. The stunning set design by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader depicts the exterior of an imposing mid-twentieth-century government building rendered in a style that wouldn't be out of place in Washington, DC. It is marred, however, by a street memorial -- with candles, flowers, and signs and graffiti making statements like "Stop killing our sons" and "End the war before it ends you." Katherine Freer's projections impose waving banners, with imperial-looking sun symbols, on the upstage wall; she also provides a zipper sign delivering a variety of news developments: "Oedipus' sons have been killed at each other's hands," "Hundreds missing. Thousands displaced," and "Citizens of Thebes find hope in new leadership." Director Carl Cofield and his collaborators have created an Antigone for the Black Lives Matter era.

Well, why not? There's something about Antigone, more than most classical works, that seems to speak directly to the present moment -- whatever it is. My first encounter with it -- as, I suspect, is true of most people my age -- was Jean Anouilh's version, which alluded unmistakably to the Nazi occupation of Paris. With a plot that includes a strongman ruler whose unbending manner suggests an uncertain grip on power, a political family riddled with intrigue, and the death of a young man treated with callous indifference by the authorities, this production sometimes seems eerily in sync with our strange times. In truth, the concept isn't a perfect fit: The death of Polyneices, Antigone's brother, which sets the plot in motion, is the result of an internecine power battle following the death of Oedipus, head of this royal house; Polyneices was a co-ruler of Thebes locked in a murderous rivalry with his brother, not an obscure young man destroyed by systemic racism, like a Trayvon Martin or Emmett Till. Creon's decision not to bury Polyneices' body -- the decision that drives Antigone to defy him -- is taken only to bolster his image as a ruler. Still, Cofield's production is loaded with crackling confrontations, which alone are enough to remind us why this drama has haunted the Western imagination for some twenty-five hundred years.

Alexandria King makes an unusually strong and purposeful Antigone, one thoroughly unafraid to speak truth to power; in a moment that raised a gasp from the audience, she summons up all her contempt and spits in Creon's eye. I've seen more than one Antigone who slips into rebellious mode bit by bit, gradually accommodating herself to the terrible sacrifice she must make. Here, King gives us a woman in full battle mode from her first entrance. She also has a persuasive way with the text, which employs Paul Roche's adaptation, but with many additions and ad libs that reference the surrounding Harlem neighborhood. Especially haunting is her lament that Polyneices is "to have no funeral or lament/But to be left unburied and unwept/A sweet treasure for the birds to look at/For them to feed on to their heart's content." There's something in that image that is both elegiac and savage; it can stick in your head for days.

The rest of the cast is equally adept at handling the production's hybrid classical/modern sensibility, rushing to tragedy without overemoting or otherwise losing control of the material. Ismene, Antigone's sibling, whose vacillating ways can leave one to wonder if she isn't the source of the term "weak sister," is given an unusually strong interpretation by Ava McCoy; she tries to dissuade Antigone with a vigor I've rarely, if ever, seen before. Ty Jones, the company's producing artistic director, is a robust, dominating presence as Creon, here envisioned as a warrior king who sees his citizens as extensions of his army. He is powerfully challenged by Avon Haughton as Haemon, Creon's son; their relationship is portrayed as a frankly Oedipal struggle for dominance, no more so than when Haemon, challenging his father, sneers, "Now who's talking like a boy," only to receive a violent slap in the face. Anthony Vaughn Merchant brings a surprising amount of comedy to the role of the guard bearing unwelcome news; in a notably striking moment, he raises his hand to Creon, expecting a high-five that doesn't come. (Creon may be a dictator, but he is no populist.) Kahlil X. Daniel's Teiresias is an august messenger of doom, his oracular denunciation of the "sick state" of Thebes underscored by Alan C. Edwards' highly theatrical lighting, which combines alluring saturated color washes with audience ballyhoos.

At seventy minutes, this is an extremely fast-moving Antigone, and I suspect that the text has been trimmed more than a bit. But Cofield's production has also found a contemporary way of dealing with the ritualistic aspects of Greek tragedy, combining choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher with strongly blues-accented music to create a seamless blend of sound, movement, and drama. There are many arresting moments: a close-up of Antigone's eyes projected on the set, a video collage of war scenes from around the world, and the sight of Antigone looking up at the set's second level where, one by one, the members of the chorus turn their backs on her.

This is an Antigone more rooted in melodrama than tragedy, focusing less on the price she pays with her life and more on the fireworks that occur when the status quo is challenged. The title character's self-destruction in the pursuit of virtue is faintly obscured by the mural-like canvas of social turmoil. I could also have done without some of the jokey contemporary references, such as the mention of the Whole Foods that has opened up the street from the amphitheatre, although these are, arguably, a legitimate way of evoking the demotic elements of Greek theatre. But, any way you look at it, this is a tense, involving drama presented with a highly theatrical flourish and with something to say about the debased state of our democracy. On its own terms, it is a remarkable achievement. -- David Barbour

(17 July 2018)

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