01 March 2018

Antigone, by Sophocles

The Set from Juniata's Antigone

When going to see a theatre production at a college theatre you’ve never been to before, you never know what you’re going to get. College theatre is of notoriously varied quality. Which is why I was so pleased with Juniata College’s production of Antigone, directed by Leigh Hendrix. While there were some performance limitations, the show took a lot of interesting risks and made unique interpretive choices that made for an engaging and thought-provoking performance.

Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the ancient Greek playwright’s best known works, and it has been subject to intensive philosophical debate over the years. The play tells of the clash between Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, and Kreon, who has inherited the throne of Thebes after the civil war in which Eteokles and Polyneikes killed one another— they were Antigone’s brothers, who were supposed to alternate ruling Thebes until Eteokles decided to exile his brother and keep the throne for himself. Kreon declares that Eteokles should receive a hero’s burial while Polyneikes should remain unburied, and that anyone who performed any funeral rites for him would be executed. After her sister Ismene refuses to help, Antigone goes and buries her brother’s body. She is arrested, and after arguing with Kreon over the gap between divine law and the law of the city-state, is sentenced to be walled in a cave. Kreon’s son Haemon argues for mercy, but his father ignores him, and as the guilt mounts against Kreon for his inflexibility the play ends with Antigone dead, as well as Haemon and Kreon’s wife Eurydike.

One interesting choice at the Juniata production was an all-female cast. The majority of roles in Antigone are male roles, and one of the ways the play has often been read (including by Jacques Lacan) is as a feminist struggle between Kreon representing the masculine power of the state on the one hand, and Antigone representing pre-political feminine kinship networks on the other. In casting Christine Reilly to play Kreon, Anna Sismour to play the guard, and a chorus consisting of four female actors, the Juniata production replaced the masculine authorities of the king, the military, and the chorus of elderly Theban men with female performers. The all-female cast is particularly interesting in light of Judith Butler’s argument in Antigone’s Claim, where she theorizes that Antigone represents not the feminine antithesis of Kreon, but a queer deformation of both Kreon’s (masculine) position as head of the state, and a deformation of the pre-political family because of her almost incestuous focus on her brother’s body (as well as being the offspring of Oedipus). When the entire cast is female, this queer challenge to social power structures is doubly reflected back, as Kreon’s masculine authority becomes a performance increasingly divorced from Reilly’s physical body.

There were also a lot of interesting individual performance choices. Beginning with the titular character, Antigone (Samekh McKiever) was much more afraid than I typically picture the character. McKiever took Antigone in a different direction than I have imagined the heroine, because after her arrest McKiever repeatedly drew back from Kreon, tried to escape, and sought help/sympathy from the elderly chorus. I picture Antigone as a character who seeks her own death, a lady who doth protest too much that she wants to live. But McKiever’s performance was of an Antigone who wants to live, and whose fine speeches about accepting death seemed as much an attempt to convince herself as anyone else. The performance challenged my take on the character in a way I found refreshing and engaging.

On the other hand, I didn’t care for Shamya Butler-Bonner’s portrayal of Ismene (who is one of my favorite characters, disproportionate to her relative role in the play). To be clear, there was nothing wrong with Butler-Bonner’s acting, or even with the interpretive choice. But the anger she brought to the character is totally foreign to the way that I see Ismene. In her interactions with McKiever early in the play, Butler-Bonner’s energy was much higher than McKiever’s, and her tone was more outraged. For me, Antigone is the sister whose anger burns from the inside out, whereas Ismene has, in my mind, the survivor’s drive to live quietly and unobtrusively to avoid further destruction.

The other major performer who made a big impression was Reilly, playing Kreon. Kreon is, for much of the show, a tough character to make work because he spends the bulk of the time as a kind of swaggering tin-pot dictator making edicts and demanding he have his own way. And Reilly wasn’t always fantastic in that element, but where she really delivered a powerful performance was at the play’s end, when she brought in the lifeless body of Haemon (Rina Kirsch), and the body of Eurydike (Corey Atkinson) is brought out of the palace. In that grief and despair, Reilly really shone. With bloody hands, and on her knees between the bodies of her family members, Reilly wailed the grief of a king brought from the height of power to complete despair.

Apart from the performances, the set, designed by Apollo Weaver, added a unique and innovative component to the performance. The back wall was a Greek façade with columns and double doors, then a performance space echoing ancient Greek theatres—with a raised platform up stage and a semi-circular orkhestra downstage—but what was intriguing was the ring of dirt around the orkhestra, which can just be seem in the photo above. Most of the ring of dirt was dry, but the section at the center of the stage, where the stairs down from the orkhestra to the ground were, was mud. And as characters walked through that mud, it was tracked progressively onto the stage. So as the play went on, the stage became dirtier and dirtier, turning the white marble(-looking) set brown. Then at the end of the play, when Kreon brings on Haemon’s body, the mud that has been accumulating the entire show is mixed with blood. A symbol of the sad and squalid condition that Kreon’s hubris has brought to Thebes.

03 December 2017

The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare

The American Shakespeare Center’s travelling troupe is consistently excellent, and their production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Jemma Alix Levy, lived up to that high standard. The ASC’s distinctive performance ethos is one of the major factors in their success. Their performance style is a blend of the modern and the Elizabethan, as they perform in fully lit spaces and incorporate music (both Early Modern conventions), but give the plays a distinctly modern twist with modern music and attitudes.

Taming can be a really tough play to do well because the performance needs to navigate how the anti-feminist elements will be presented in a way that works for a modern, post-feminist audience. The high plot focuses on Katherina (whom Petruchio insists on calling Kate), known throughout Padua for being a fearsome and tempestuous woman who will endure the company of no man. The problem is that her beautiful and agreeable sister Bianca is being courted by several suitors, but their father Baptista has said Bianca cannot marry until Katherina has found a husband. When Petruchio arrives in town looking for a wife—any wife, as long as she’s rich—the suitors ask and Petruchio agrees to marry Katherina (to get her father’s money). Against her will, she is married off, and Petruchio begins the process of “taming” her, which essentially involves depriving her of food and sleep until she gives in absolutely to his will. While this is going on, a young nobleman named Lucentio has also come to town and fallen in love with Bianca. In order to circumvent both the existing suitors and the suspicious Baptista, Lucentio dresses up as a tutor to teach Bianca Latin and Greek. Through the strategic use of love poetry, Lucentio wins Bianca’s heart. When all parties involved come back together at the end for Lucentio and Bianca’s wedding feast, they make a wager on the submissiveness of their wives, and Katherina is the only one who obeys, at which point she makes a speech scolding the other wives for not looking upon their husbands as lords, masters, and gods.

Obviously the anti-feminist element is a major problem for contemporary audiences, which are unlikely to be all that sympathetic to a figure like Petruchio who essentially tortures his wife until her will is broken, or even to Katherina’s closing speech in which she declares an ethic of slavish subservience. In order to counteract this problematic subject matter, it’s crucial to have a strong comic performance.

In the ASC production, many of the funniest moments actually came from supporting characters. The funniest performance of the night was Calder Shilling, who played Petruchio’s servant Grumio and Lucentio’s father Vincentio. As Grumio, Shilling was all that one could want from a bumbling comic servant—he vacillated between terror that Petruchio (Ronald Román-Meléndez) would beat him, exhaustion after walking back to Petruchio’s estate, drunkenly attempting to defend his master with various foodstuffs, and trying desperately to lift a suitcase that every other character picks up with ease.

Another particularly funny performance came from Kyle Powell, playing the elderly suitor Gremio. Powell would laugh raucously at others’ misfortunes, particularly when the other husbands lose their money betting on the obedience of their wives, and his slow shuffle to get anywhere was comically over-performed. Similarly hilarious was the pairing of Constance Swain, who played Tranio, Lucentio’s servant who takes his master’s clothing and place to allow Lucentio to go undercover, and the slow-witted Biodello, played by Topher Embrey. As Lucentio’s servants, Tranio and Biondello needed to keep their master’s true identity a secret, which proved unusually difficult with a series of comic mishaps, including Biondello’s continual inability to remember that Tranio was pretending to be Lucentio and the arrival of Lucentio’s father (Shilling) after Tranio had employed a decoy (Hilary Alexa Caldwell) to pretend to be Vincentio and give permission for Lucentio and Bianca to marry.

30 October 2017

Argonautika, by Mary Zimmerman

Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika straddles a number of boundaries—between ancient epic and modern drama, between comedy and tragedy, between poetry and theatre. Following the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, this modern adaptation based on the tale recounted in the Greek by Apollonius and in the Latin by Gaius Valerius Flaccus. But this is certainly no dry, creaking scholarly representation of the tale. Zimmerman’s play is defiantly modern, drawing on not only Greek mythology but hip hop, a smart, contemporary humor somewhat in the vein of a Tyler Perry comedy, and puppetry/costumes reminiscent of Disney’s Lion King. Although the hip hop numbers don’t do much for me personally, they seem strangely in keeping with the sassy Greek heroes, almost frat boy camaraderie of the Argo, and celebratory ethos of this swashbuckling sword-and-sandals play.

The Penn State Centre Stage production, directed by Steve Snyder, brought the play to vibrant life, with an effective blending of high energy celebrations, absurdist comedy, and rather ironic solemnity. Broadly speaking, these three categories break down as follows: the Argonauts spend much of their time celebrating, cheering, and dancing; many of their adventures are played out with a keen sense of the dramatic; and the relationship between Jason (Brandon Gregory) and Medea (Sadie Spivey) is a love story constantly overshadowed by the violence that will inevitable come between the two.

The first half of the play moves much quicker, as it is largely filled with the Argonauts various adventures prior to landing in Kolkhis—the land where the golden fleece, the object of their quest, is kept. In this first half, the stand out performers are Zuhdi Boueri as King Pelias and Zack Wold as Hercules. Boueri plays the fickle and temperamental tyrant to perfection as the elderly Pelias. His sassy and irreverent dismissals of his blundering servants suggest simultaneously the potential for immediate fits of rage and the impotence of that rage. Wold’s Hercules is equally comic, as the buffoonish strongman whose very enthusiasm for himself and for his own feats often leads him into trouble. But it is only with the loss of his beloved companion Hylas (Timothy Lewis) that Wold’s performance really becomes spectacular. Hercules’ mad grief for his friend pushes the character and the performance beyond the clownishness of the strongman, and shows the real range a skilled actor can bring even to a relatively one-dimensional character.

In the second half the pace slows dramatically, as the focus becomes Jason and Medea’s relationship, and Medea’s moral conundrum about whether to follow her heart and betray her family and city for Jason, or to betray her heart and remain true to her family and home. As the relationship between Medea and Jason develops, we have constant visual reminders of the violence upon which the relationship is built and which will ultimately destroy it. After Aphrodite (Julia Chereson) bribes Eros (Lewis) to fire an arrow into Medea, she continually appears with an arrow through her stomach and a widening blood stain across her dress. When first introduced, Medea’s dress is green, but by the time she escapes with the Argo it is entirely red. This suggests visually the ominous nature of the Jason-Medea relationship, and indeed while it is a passionate relationship it is also a relationship doomed from the start and deeply imbued with a fundamental violence.

Throughout the play, Gregory was a strong lead, and Johnique Mitchell played a strong and compelling narrator role as Athena. Gregory’s ease as the leader of the Argonauts was a delicate balance between quiet strength and a subtle willingness to stand apart from much of the crew’s raucous misbehavior. And Mitchell was a commanding presence guiding events, both as the principal narrator who helped orient spectators within the story of the Argonauts and as one of the principle goddesses, along with Hera (Jordan Cooper) protecting the sailors on their voyage.

The production was visually appealing, with Greek inspired costumes with modern touches, unique lighting techniques and shadow performances, and Lion King-esque puppetry. The two fire breathing bulls that Jason has to yoke, for instance, were two person puppets consisting of several articulated body portions and two back legs run via poles. Or the dragon which never sleeps was created by perhaps eight actors holding portions of a giant dragon face and moving them rhythmically to give the appearance that this was one creature feeling and expressing emotions.