Of Cabbageheads and Kings

Old-World buffoonery and ancient tragedy hit local stages

At its core Antigone is about righteous inflexibility, and Emily Mann's new adaptation of Sophocles' tragedy levels a steely eye at both the failings of human nature and the contemporary American political predicament. Staged in the signature Ten Thousand Things style, in the round, at floor level, with the actors mere feet from the audience, this show's combination of thespian talent and directorial vision take firm hold of the audience's viscera, providing abundant cause to question the darker corners of human nature.

The action opens in Thebes just after civil war. Antigone, Oedipus's young daughter, has lost both of her brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, to the war. Her uncle Creon (Bob Davis) is settling brusquely into his new job as king. In one of his first acts as ruler, Creon insists that Polyneices, having been on the wrong side in battle, be left to rot while Eteocles is accorded a hero's funeral. Their sister Antigone (Kate Eifrig) goes ahead and buries Polyneices, and is caught, and Creon stubbornly holds onto his rash decision to punish her. Neither backs down, and tragedy ensues.

This production comes in at a trim 70 minutes, and much of that time is rife with emotional immediacy. Eifrig plays Antigone as a creature of rage until a pivotal final moment. The scene in which she and her sister Ismene (Sonja Parks, who played Antigone in the Children's Theatre Company's 2003 production) debate what to do about their brother's body builds to an almost overwhelming intensity. Later, an argument between Creon and his son Haemon (Ron Menzel) thunders with anger and danger. While the sweep and drama of the tragedy is in abundant supply, Michelle Hensley's direction provides small touches that keep things from becoming monochromatic. Haemon softly whispers a message of devotion into Creon's ear, Ismene flashes girlish despair when she describes the sorry history of her family, and Antigone makes a fleeting but devastating admission of how her own blind righteousness led to her downfall. Such touches display great subtlety and intelligence, and they draw the viewer into a more ambiguous sense of blame.

Say uncle: Bob Davis as Creon and Kate Eifrig as Antigone in the latest Ten Thousand Things production
Peter Vitale
Say uncle: Bob Davis as Creon and Kate Eifrig as Antigone in the latest Ten Thousand Things production

There's another dimension to Mann's interpretation, in which Creon takes advantage of his popularity as ruler to inveigh against "evildoers." He refers to himself as a "wartime commander," and pig-headedly insists he will "stay the course" even when presented with evidence that his policies will wreck his rule. I was on the fence about the abundance of Dubyisms in the script, because I'd seen another version of Antigone recently that gave ample cause to reflect on stubbornly bad governance without having the modern parallels telegraphed directly. In this case, though, Davis is the one who sells it. He plays Creon with a straight-lipped intransigence, a man who glows at praise or, better still, deference, and who launches into hair-trigger rages whenever questioned. The spirit of the president is most firmly evoked when Creon nearly wails with astonishment that anyone would question his decision-making.

By the end, Parks returns as a chorus member, offering Creon a final admonishment that convincingly raises the tone of the work to the universal. Intransigence can lead to tragedy, or it can merely result in an ossifying of the spirit and graying of the soul. This Antigone manages, with subtlety and a deft touch, to leave us walking out the door pondering our own inner Creon or Antigone, and checking the creaking foundation of our own self-defined heroism.

 

The Guthrie's World Stage series brings us a 1745 commedia dell'arte by Carlo Goldoni, as staged by the renowned Piccolo Teatro di Milano. Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters sees the title character (played from behind a mask by Ferruccio Soleri, who first tackled the role 45 years ago) attempt to scam his way through a series of absurdly contrived situations while continuously preoccupied with filling his stomach.

It's a visually gorgeous show, with an ace ensemble cast and eye-pleasing painted sets by designer Ezio Frigerio. It's also three hours long (with two intermissions) and performed in Italian (translations are provided above the stage and on monitors to either side). The evening, however, never feels like a chore. The plot is ridiculous, but the production moves at a breezy pace, and Soleri brings such assurance to the wonderfully vulgar Arlecchino that one is fairly swept up in the humor of the thing. There is indeed a whiff of the museum about the entire enterprise, but it is also a unique opportunity to view an archaic art form done much as it originally was. And somehow it's reassuring to note that fun, crass stupidity was just as viable in the 18th century as it is today.

 
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