Highly Recommended *****Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is an adaptation of Sophocles’ 5thc BCE Greek play of the same name. Anouilh’s adaptation, written and first performed during the period of French-Nazi collaboration and the French resistance, takes Sophocles’ drama, already an apex of high culture, and deemphasizes certain themes such as religious and civic duty without eliminating them completely, heightens and expands others like the dynamic of family and the nature of Kingship, and adds, through the chorus’s discourse, meta-theatrical reflection on the genre of tragedy.
In other words, this very sophisticated drama is made into an even more sophisticated play that mixes old and new, classical and contemporary concerns. Thus, First Stages production in which high school students very successfully navigate the play’s thematic nuances and complex ideas, while retaining a keen sense of its 5thc source material, is an astonishing feat. From the curtain onwards, the Chorus Leader (Mary Jesnik) tells us of Antigone, and the personal and political dynamics of her royal family, and the nature of her tragedy and the genre itself. Jesnik’s voice is simeateanously ethereal, sad, persuasive, and magisterial. Throughout the she can often be seen keenly observing the story with a look between authorial wisdom and hopeless compassion.
It is the classical story of Antigone (Josie Trettin) interposed with altered and added themes in a world that is mix of Ancient Hellas and 20thc European royalty. Thanks to Trettin, who despite her deliberate and impressive statuesque like demeanor (the chorus reminds her fate has already been sculpted by Sophocles), is able to convincingly navigate these two worlds, so that she appears as both part of the 6thc BCE House of Oedipus and a 20thc European princess whose actions were determined by the Greek myth and crystalized in Sophocles play, but whose motives are more post-modern.
That statuesque like demeanor underscores her sole goal and her intransigence: she wants to bury her brother against the edict of her uncle the king, and will continue to attempt to do so until she is put to death. She does not care if burying him will have any metaphysical consequence, she does not claim to be following deontological obligations that supersede civil law, she does care if he was a hero or a traitor, she simply wants to bury him because he is her brother and he is dead. That said, Trettin convincingly balances her sole determination with everyday emotional experiences more typical of modern drama, and perhaps, modern life: her passionate love for the king’s son: Haemon (Jacob Badovski) and her complex relationship with her beautiful sister Ismene (Madiysan Fairchild) which involves mutual jealousy and admiration.
In contrast to Trettin, Fairchild’s movements are poised, delicate, and extremely graceful. Thus, her Ismene is more quiet, beautiful and more delicate than her sister, and she treats Antigone with kindness and a condescending sort of praise.
Both sisters are dressed in classical garb (Costume: Jaclyn Bjornson), whereas their Aunt and Uncle: Queen Eurydice (Cezanne Smith) and King Creon (Lawson Mitchell), by counterintuitive contrast, wear the elegant, formal, modern clothing of 20thc royalty. Creon is very much the modern monarch (except that he still has the capacity to decree and brutally execute his subjects): intelligent, educated, aware of his family history, and assuming control of the state out of what he sees as duty-bound patriotism (Director Joshua Pohja and Mitchell have decided to downplay Anouilh’s representation of Creon’s gentle, prosaic hedonistic—and any gentleness in general). Creon similarly expects his niece to sacrifice her own desires and emotional needs and wants to the service of the state.
Mitchell plays Creon as a man so tied up in this deontological paradigm that he has become cruel, glowering and grinning as he tries to torment Antigone into the subjugation: accepting his pardon, renewing her obedience, and recommitting to a spared life. However, Mitchell also manages to show us that underneath lie the remains of a kind man and gentle father who, he is reminded once shielded his young son, Haemon, from all his fears. It’s a difficult maneuver and an effective one, as that former man will be revealed when Creon loses everyone he loves in the play’s brutal end. Haemon’s part in the drama is minimal, he mainly sheds light on Creon and Antigone’s characters, but Baedovski convincingly delivers his lines with appropriate tenderness or severity as the situation demands.
Pohja’s blocking, clearly done in conjunction with the heavy, atmospheric, and emotional lighting design (Eliot Garfield), makes the play feel lyrical and appropriately deterministic. embodying it with a tragic beauty. At the same time, he allows Teddy Esten to use his gifted comedic skills to be employed in his delivery of the First Guard Eteocles lines when they could just be as easily have been represented as coldly anachronistic. I’m not sure if the play needs this, but Esten’s good at it, and it does nothing to dampen the considerable impact of the play’s tragically elegant ending. I’ve seen many great things at First Stage, but this represents a new height in sophistication. I’ve along adored this Anouilh’s Antigone, and I am privileged to have seen in here.
Antigone runs through April 17th at Milwaukee Youth Arts Theatre-Youth Hall, located at 325 W. Walnut St. Performances are Saturday, April 9th at 3:30 pm and 7:00 pm; Sunday, April 10th at 3:30 and 7:30 pm; Friday, April 15th at 7:00 pm; Saturday April 16th at 3:30 pm and 7:00 pm; and Sunday April 17th at 3:30 pm and 7:00 pm. Tickets are $14 and can be purchased by calling 414-267-2961 or by visiting www.firststage.org