Death and the Maiden | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Death and the Maiden 

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ANTIGONE

Footsteps Theatre Company

Christina Jeffrey could find nothing to object to in Jean Anouilh's Antigone. Jeffrey's the political science teacher appointed to the post of House historian by her friend Newt Gingrich, then fired by him when word got out that a few years back she opposed an educational program on the Holocaust because it omitted the perspective of the Nazis. Antigone, premiered in 1944 in German-occupied Paris, didn't make the same error; to balance the play's eponymous heroine, a passionate martyr who could easily be seen as a symbol of the French resistance, Anouilh created a rational and articulate Creon, the ruler whose law Antigone defies though she knows she faces a death sentence.

No power-hungry tyrant, this Creon is a decent, rather bookish man who's trying to do the most good for the most people. Having put down a civil war in Thebes stemming from the rivalry of Antigone's brothers Polynices and Eteocles, Creon's determined to preserve order in the kingdom he inherited from Antigone's father Oedipus, who died in exile after discovering that his wife Jocasta was also his mother. As Jocasta's brother (and thus Oedipus's brother-in-law and uncle), Creon was thrust into a job he would just as soon not have. "They say it's dirty work," he says with melancholy resignation at the drama's end. "But if I didn't do it, who would?"

It's a far cry from the cathartic, elevated cadences of Greek tragedy. Writing for the Athenians of 442 BC, Sophocles set up Antigone and Creon as clear-cut representatives of right and wrong thinking. Antigone insists on burying Polynices, a noble youth who died battling his treacherous brother; but Creon decrees that Polynices' corpse must lie exposed as a warning to would-be rebels. Though Antigone's defiance brings her to her death, she obeys the laws of god and family--which, Sophocles says, far outweigh the rules of earthly government. (Indeed, her death takes on a holiness that reflects the drama's roots in ancient ceremonies of human sacrifice, in which a virgin was delivered to the god of the underworld.) And Creon is crushed for flouting divine order: his son Haemon, betrothed to Antigone, in his grief commits suicide, which prompts the suicide of Creon's wife. Devastated and alone, Creon acknowledges his sin and accepts his punishment.

Anouilh rejects Sophocles' tragic vision and the religious thinking that supports it. Antigone admits she doesn't believe the superstition that if her brother goes unburied his spirit will be tormented. Creon demonstrates that Polynices and Eteocles were equally reprehensible; both plotted to assassinate their father, and neither paid much attention to Antigone when she was a girl. Deprived of any moral authority, Antigone's obstinate pursuit of a self-destructive course emerges as the ultimate existential act--the assertion of her autonomy in an empty universe and a society corrupted by compromise. "Life is the happiness that you get out of it," pleads Creon, who sincerely wants to help Antigone avoid death. "What kind of happiness?" she responds. "To whom shall I have to lie? To whom must I sell myself? Whom do you want me to leave dying, while I turn away my eyes?"

Creon's argument and Antigone's are both convincing--so convincing that the audience must ask itself: Which way would I choose? And the answer in most cases would be: I have chosen both. Who hasn't clung to principle, then been forced to ask, as Antigone does, "What am I fighting for?" And who hasn't sacrificed principle in order to make himself and others happy--then accepted his losses and gone on about his business like Creon, who ends the play by burying his family and calling a cabinet meeting? If Anouilh's play had political ramifications in its time--and if it still does, as politicians wrangle over the relative merits of confrontation versus compromise--its greatest strength is its insight into the contradictions of each individual life.

But it takes a production of rare sensitivity to illuminate that strength; though a hit in its original Parisian run, the play has generally fared poorly before American audiences since its 1946 U.S. premiere. The script is an anachronistically absurd collage of classic and modern references; of lyric poetry and slangy references to guns and cigarettes; of naturalistic scenes of lovemaking and leave-taking and archly theatrical commentary by a wry Chorus. ("When your name is Antigone, there is only one part you can play; and she will have to play hers to the end," this aloof narrator advises at one point.) Even with the star power of Katharine Cornell and Cedric Hardwicke as Antigone and Creon, the first Broadway production had a short run, and subsequent revivals earned it a reputation as a dramatically flawed intellectual exercise. "A mixed drink for specialized tastes," a New York Times critic politely called it; the thing about a mixed drink is that it takes a skilled bartender to make it right.

In this revival of the rarely done work, director Dale Heinen and her Footsteps Theatre Company deliver a production of great distinction that aims right at the heart of the play. Working from Lewis Galantiere's English adaptation as well as the original French, Heinen has stripped away the elegant high-society pretensions that accompanied Cornell's production (the cast wore formal dinner clothes), emphasizing instead the script's emotional fluidity. As with Greek tragedy, whose violent events always took place offstage, little "happens" in Antigone; the action is in the words with which people describe their feelings about what has taken place or soon will. The Footsteps cast, costumed by Melissa Wayne in an intriguing , fanciful mixture of ancient, medieval, and contemporary styles, eschew declamatory attitudes in favor of a believable naturalistic acting style: soft-spoken intimacy and unshowy honesty are the order of the day.

Anchoring the production is Dawn Alden as Antigone: her face, with its high cheekbones, long nose, and piercingly vulnerable eyes, could have come straight off an ancient Attic vase painting. It's often captivating to watch Alden surefootedly negotiate Antigone's emotional shifts from willful obstinacy to gawky goofiness to shy sexiness to self-punishing guilt to pure terror as (illuminated only by a flashlight) she faces the death she's invited. And it's thrilling to watch Alden's scenes with David Parkes as the frustrated, patient, well-meaning Creon, Pam Vogel as Antigone's anxious sister Ismene, Margaret Kustermann as Antigone's skeptical but tolerant nanny, Brad David Reed as the wisecracking guard, and Robert Schleifer as the hopeful but confused Haemon--here a deaf-mute who communicates with Antigone in sign language--and realize that you're seeing that rare thing on a stage: genuine interaction between people who are actually thinking about what the others are saying. Their committed contact makes the legend's archetypal figures acquire vivid, quirky lives of their own in this splendid show.

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