Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Sophocles

Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

Review | Antigone | By Jean Anouilh | Translated by Lewis Galantière | Fusion Theatre

                                                … the force of destiny …

Here’s an amazing experience!   You walk into a small off-Broadway theater.  The stage is about as minimal as can be – mainly there’s a baffle board at the back and an upright piano to the side.  Early on  Antigone, kneeling, agonized by Creon’s order forbidding burial for the body of her rebellious brother, expresses her anguish with an operatic soprano aria, “Pace, pace, mio Dio”  from Verdi’s La Forza del destino.  What a shock!  And what a way to convey intense emotion in a play.

Eilin O'Dea as Antigone, holding dirt from the burial of her brother in Antigone by Jean Anouilh, presented by Fusion Theatre. Photo Jonathan Staff

Eilin O’Dea as Antigone, holding dirt from the burial of her brother. Photo Jonathan Staff

The Fusion Theatre, originated by Eilin O’Dea, who directs the production and plays Antigone, is dedicated to the idea of merging classical theatre and opera.   This production  presents the text of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone of 1944 with the addition of four arias, and choral music from Saint-Saëns’ opera Antigone.   The impact is powerful.  The story, that Anouilh drew from Sophocles’ great drama written in the Fifth Century B.C., is famous for pitting the will of a girl against a king.

According to the ancient legend, Antigone, her sister Ismene, and their brothers, Polynices and Eteocles are the children of the fateful marriage of Oedipus with his mother.  Now Oedipus is dead, and his rivalrous sons have killed one another fighting for mastery of the city of Thebes.   Creon, now King of Thebes, has decreed that the insurgent brother who rose up against the city, Polynices, be deprived of the important rite of burial.  Antigone rebelliously contrives to bury him, incurring Creon’s wrath and risking dire punishment.

I knew that Anouilh’s Antigone had been written during World War II and produced in France as a protest against the German occupation, the censors not recognizing in the garb of a “classical” play that Creon’s dictatorship was a stand-in for the fascist occupation, and that Antigone stood for the spirit of resistance.  I didn’t expect, though, that to get the play past the censors, Anouilh had altered Antigone’s character.  Instead of the high-minded woman that she is in Sophocles’ play, challenging Creon with her brilliantly wrought arguments, here Antigone is quixotic, not principled.

Antigone’s statements of how she makes her decisions and why she acts as she does range from unclear to unconvincing.  I’ve heard her rationales in this play called “existential” but by the time Creon has earnestly, even desperately said everything he knows to save her from disaster and she ignores him, she seems just plain nutty.  Creon, on the other hand, and to my surprise, comes across as a sympathetic character, anguished by the conflict between what he thinks he ought to do for the safety of his city and his unwillingness to harm Antigone.

Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, singing Ella Giammai from Verdi's Don Carlo in Fusion Theatre's Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Photo Jonathan Staff

Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, singing Ella Giammai from Verdi’s Don Carlo: “If the Prince sleeps, the traitor is awake.” Photo Jonathan Staff

The sympathetic Creon brings us to a high point of this production– Paul Goodwin Groen, the magnificent bass, singing “Ella Giammai,” the aria sung by an equally distressed King Philppe II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.  Omigosh.  What an experience, to hear this full, operatic bass not in a vast opera house but in the intimate setting of, yes, off-Broadway!  Groen’s interpretation of the aria, his acting, his strength and his pathos – again, seen close – are thrilling.  If there were no other reason to see this play – and there are many others – Groen’s “Ella Giammai” would be of itself worth all.

The acting is for the most part of high caliber.  In particular, the multi-talented and creative Eilin O’Dea brings the maximum of dramatic tension to the role of Antigone. Byron Singleton

L-R Byron Singleton as First Guard, Adam Shiri as Second Guard, Jason Wirth, Music Director and Accompanist. Photo Jonathan Staff

combines down-to-earth self-interest with a touching sympathy in his role as First Guard, and with his fine tenor voice he provides a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of Manrico’s aria, “Deserto Sulla Terra,” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.  Sue Ellen Mandel is touching as the Nurse, and Igby Rigby is cleverly insinuating as the Page/Chorus – the young “innocent” boy who’s already wise to the world.  Music Director Jason Wirth provides strong accompaniment to the singing, and plays a solo, on an upright piano to the side of the stage.

I can imagine that some may find it a little jarring for Fusion Theatre to pull in operatic arias to Anouilh’s script – perhaps, one may say, rather than “borrowing,” the group should have a composer write the music specifically for this play.  That would be a great idea if there happens to be a Verdi around – one willing to do it on a shoestring.  The operatic music was  thought-provoking, enriching and a pleasure to hear, and did a good job of advancing the Fusion Theater’s point that there’s value of merging classical theater and opera.

After all, we don’t even know what the music was that accompanied Sophocles’ Antigone around 441 B.C. – but we know there was music!

Fusion Theatre’s Antigone plays at the Studio Theatre on Manhattan’s Theatre Row, West 42nd Street, through May 28, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

Antigone cast. L-R Allison Threadgold as Ismene, Pauline Yeng as Messenger, David Gran as Haemon, Sue Ellen Mendel as Nurse, Eilin O’Dea as Antigone (foreground), Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, Igby Rigney as Page/Chorus, Adam Shiri as Second Guard, Byron Singleton as First Guard. Photo Jonathan Staff

Review | The Burial At Thebes | By Seamus Heaney | From Sophocles’ Antigone | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Irish Repertory Theatre

… don’t bother …

Sophocles’ Antigone is among the greatest plays ever written, Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize winning poet, and Irish Repertory Theatre produces wonderful shows with outstanding actors.  How then did The Burial At Thebes turn out to be a  poor derivative of Antigone, with amateurish acting?

Since their usual theater is under renovation, Irish Rep produced this elsewhere but I don’t see that would explain this disappointing production.

The basic story line is here:  After the death of Oedipus, Creon has become King in ancient Thebes and Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone and Ismene, are living there. Oedipus’ son, Polynices, leads a futile attempt to overthrow King Creon and take over the city but Oedipus’ other son, Eteocles, fights to defend Creon and Thebes. The two brothers meet in battle and slay one another.   Eteocles, receives a hero’s burial but Creon decrees that the traitor, Polynices, shall receive no burial but be left exposed, carrion for the birds and dogs.  As when Achilles refused Hector burial in the Iliad, this is an ultimate indignity, a violation of Greek burial practices and a religious desecration.

Oedipus’ daughter Antigone, inspired by love for her brother and profound religious principle buries Polynices.  In Sophocles, she covers him with “handfuls of dry dust” and pours libations which suffice symbolically, but Heaney has the poor girl do some serious — though hard to visualize — digging.   Creon vows to execute Antigone for her insubordination.

In a breathtaking confrontation, Sophocles shows Creon arguing for the primacy of laws made by men – here his own arbitrary decrees – and the virtue of obedience for the valuable purpose of keeping order in cities.  Antigone, admitting she disobeyed his laws, claims she acted rightly according to higher, divine, eternal laws.  It’s a great dramatic argument but no one is persuaded, and the play marches on toward its excess-driven tragic conclusion.

Although the characters and their motivations are filled with ambiguities, the argument between Antigone and Creon has been interpreted as a confrontation between freedom and tyranny.  Antigone is often seen as a principled, inspirational beacon of liberation facing down a dictator.  This was understood tacitly, for example, when Jean Anouilh produced his adaptation of Antigone in Paris during World War, during the Nazi occupation of France (George Steiner takes up Anouilh’s play and other variations on the theme in his book, Antigones).  Heaney, here, relates the Antigone-Creon conflict to America’s entry into the Iraq war.  This is so forced it makes one impatient:  whatever one’s opinion of George Bush or the war in Iraq, there’s no analogy.

While several of the actors have impressive resumes, the overall sense of the acting is amateurish.  Actors whom I’ve seen do outstanding work in other plays, including at Irish Rep, are insufficient here, and the accents are all over the place.  Rod Brogan rises above the general level and is exciting as the Messenger who has the sorry task of bearing bad news.

The poetry is strongest in some lyrical passages where Heaney draws directly on Sophocles’ imagery but elsewhere it seems to lack imagination.  I heard the cliché “beyond the pale” used three times in referring to arrogant action, which felt like poetic fatigue.  Heaney truncates important aspects of Antigone, including the famous choral “ode to man,” as it’s often called, and draws others out too long.

The best thing that Heaney did here was to not call this play Antigone.   Still, I worry that people will see this and think they’ve seen Antigone.  They haven’t.

The Burial At Thebes plays at the DR2 Theatre near Manhattan’s Union Square through March 6, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | An Oresteia, plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides translated by Anne Carson | Classic Stage Company

  … cycles of vengeance …

“Oresteia” refers to Aeschylus’ trilogy about the chain of vengeance murders in the House of Atreus — House as in “noble family who live in the palace”.  Classic Stage begins their Oresteia with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, moving to Sophocles’ Elektra for part two, and Euripides’ Orestes for part three.  How often does one have the chance to see together three great Greek tragedies fully produced!  This is an ambitious project, and worthwhile for bringing these exciting and profound works to new audiences.  This production has excellent qualities, including Anne Carson’s naturalistic but intense translations and some peaks of acting, though some aspects are less satisfying.

… Agamemnon …

In Aeschylus’ play, the Greek leader in the Trojan War, Agamemnon, returns home to Argos where he, and his captive concubine, Cassandra, are soon murdered by his wife, Klytaimnestra. This is a vengeance killing:  the Greeks sailing to Troy had found themselves becalmed and Agamemnon, in search of a favorable wind had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenaia, to the gods.

After seeing this production, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Stephanie Roth Haberle in the role of Klytaimnestra: she has a strong and richly inflected voice, and with her tall and exceedingly narrow form and in her blood red dress she seems the very embodiment of a sharp-edged weapon.  As Agamemnon, though, Steve Mellor opts for a casual hands in his pocket effect and doesn’t project his voice; perhaps this is intended to deconstruct a cliche of the proud and triumphant ruler, but Agamemnon a wimp?  Cassandra screams and gyrates but does not reach the character’s emotional depth.  In general, throughout this production the actors seem to be straining for effect, notable exceptions being in the magnificent performances of Haberle as Klytaimnestra and Annika Boras as Elektra.

The versatile, red stained plywood backdrop for all three plays evokes the bloody constant in this House.  During Agamemnon, though, the set was pulled forward blocking sight of the stage to those sitting on the sides, the explanation being that this was “alternative seating”;  it struck me and others as less than respectful to those stuck in the alternate seats.

… Elektra …

In Sophocles’ Electra, Orestes, the son of Klytaimnestra and Agamemnon, returns from exile and kills his mother in vengeance for her murder of his father.  The straightforward English of Anne Carson’s translation makes the great arguments of this play excitingly immediate.  This is also particularly successful among the three plays because the large role of the bitter and uncompromising Elektra is played by an outstanding actor, Annika Boras.  If you don’t know Sophocles well, here’s a chance to see the brilliant way he writes hot and building verbal conflicts between two characters whose points of view are totally irreconcilable.  The most famous Sophoclean argument is in Antigone (see Pearl Theatre’s Theban Cycle, here below in October) but Elektra’s arguments are equally dazzling.  Boras’ sardonic Elektra argues with Haberle’s haughty, frightened Klytaimnestra — great on great.  Michi Barall as Elektra’s conventionally minded sister doesn’t have as strong a voice to counter Boras but does well enough to let the playwrights words come through so you can “get” it.

It’s amusing to see the Chorus of “Women of Mycenae” turned into two sunbathing women and a man around the pool, with sunglasses — that’s OK — but on the other hand it’s illogical that these friends and confidants of Elektra are allowed to live the life of Reilly in Klytaimnestra’s palace while she and her paramour, Aigisthos, are hatefully demeaning Elektra herself.

… Orestes …

Even if you know what’s coming, Euripides’ Orestes shocks by its apparent cynicism.  The questions of Euripides’ attitudes toward his fellow human beings and the gods is continually — perhaps eternally — debated and the play puts the ambiguities on display.  None of the characters, including the god Apollo, is high-minded and there’s no indication of redemption such as one finds in Aeschylus.  Mickey Solis plays Orestes as anxiety ridden and deeply depressed — getting out of bed is a challenge.  It’s reasonable to interpret Orestes’ pursuit by the Furies in terms of modern psychology (and Euripides is often called “the most modern of the playwrights”) but one needs to keep in mind:  only six days have passed since he killed his mother.  Give the boy some time!  Still, Euripides leaves us feeling that there’s not much peace of mind ahead for this matricide in any event.

A fine and daring aspect of this Orestes was to turn Euripides’ Chorus of Women of Argos, along with Hermione, daughter of Helen of Troy, into singers and musicians.  Daring because so little is known about Greek singing, but the choral odes were certainly sung and danced:  contemporary melodies, dance and instrumentation, as here, are creative ways to acknowledge what’s unknown while maintaining the pleasures of music.  With some of the performers the singing was beautiful and insinuating — new but, yes, pure Euripides — though with others, the singing masked Euripides’ poetry.

Three playwrights — of any epoch — carrying through on a single narrative line is rare and of great interest.  There are some rough edges here but the cumulative effect of this Oresteia brings one in touch with the powers of the classical Greek playwrights to move and to provoke thought.

Agamemnon and Elektra are directed by Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas, and Orestes is directed by Paul Lazar, and associate directed and choreographed by Annie-B Parson.

An Oresteia plays at Classic Stage in NYC East Village through April 19, 2009.  Choices between seeing the three plays on one Sunday (I did) or two on one night and one another.

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