'The Burial at Thebes' brings modern edge to ancient 'Antigone'

​Sun Mee Chomet is completing an Antigone trilogy of sorts at the Guthrie Theater this fall, as she takes on the role in Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes, his new version of Sophocles' play.

"I played Antigone in Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus just out of high school, so this is like completing the cycle," Chomet says.

There is also Heaney's translation, where the Irish Nobel laureate gives Sophocles' story a contemporary edge. "He talks about being inspired to write it in the midst of the Bush era, and Bush deciding to take our country to war. That's definitely in the play. Creon has direct quotes from the president," Chomet says. "While it feels very contemporary, at the same time it is very poetic. As an actor, the language doesn't feel stilted at all. It's very immediate."

Producing a play that was written in ancient Greece at least 2,500 years ago offers plenty of challenges, but it was one that the cast, crew, and director Marcela Lorca were willing to take.

"You just embrace it. A lot of the people in the cast, along with dramaturge Jo Holcomb, compared different translations to get the correct meanings if we were not sure how something should be played. There was one line, where I say farewell to 'my Thebes of chariots.' We looked for it in several books until Jo finally found it. Thebes was always ready to defend its gates and had 20,000 chariots ready to be sent out," Chomet says.

For this production, musician J.D. Steele has composed pieces for the chorus to sing. 

'The Burial at Thebes' brings modern edge to ancient 'Antigone'
Photo by Michael Brosilow

"Marcela says she always sees theater with music and movement and dance. J.D. has been in the room, and if Marcela says there should be a song here, he has composed the music for the chorus. The music isn't written down. He makes it up on the spot or brings it in for the chorus to learn the next day. All of us have just been blown away by the harmonies that J.D. has come up with for the show," she says.

The play also asks questions about the nature of laws and government that we seem to be afraid to explore these days. The play centers on Antigone's defiance of the orders of city ruler Creon, who has declared that the body of her dead brother cannot be given a proper burial.

"Throughout the play, Antigone is referred to as being out of control and wild. I don't think it's her the person, but the power of her words and her language that frightens the city and Creon," says Chomet. "What should be more vital? The law as decided by humans or the laws of nature; the ones that we know in our guts if something is right or wrong?"

These questions seem to have enthralled the audiences at the previews for the play, and Chomet expects that to continue through the run of the show. After all, it's the same affect productions of Antigone have had for thousands of years.

"This was a time in Greece when they were originating the laws, working out government, crime and punishment, and democracy. Sophocles was challenging, even then, how we as humans create order and how we can determine someone's right to live or die, or to be free," Chomet says.

The Burial at Thebes runs through November 6. Playwright Seamus Heaney will discuss the work and his career with Joe Dowling at the theater Monday, Oct. 3.

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