You may know Sophocles's play Antigone, but do you know Mac Wellman's? The two plays share the same title, at least in part, but aside from a few character names and situations, they don't have a great deal else in common.
If you're familiar with Sophocles's classic Greek tragedy and have a solid working knowledge of Greek mythology, you might well appreciate the opportunity to see Big Dance Theater's production of Wellman's interpretation of the story, which is playing at Classic Stage Company through May 23. If you don't know Sophocles's original, or you have only a casual familiarity with it, chances are you'll be utterly baffled by what you see onstage.
The full title of Wellman's play is Antigone: As Played and Danced by the Three Fates On Their Way to Becoming the Three Graces. That should give you an idea of what you're in for: a highly deconstructed take on Sophocles's story, filtered through a greater meta-story related to Greek mythology.
As the Fates (one who spins the thread of life, one who weaves it into actions, and one who determines when it must be snipped) existed eons before Sophocles, this story bears only a perfunctory similarity to his. The story the Fates enact features a handful of characters from the play, and is overseen by a narrator (and disc jockey) named E Shriek, whom Wellman describes as "an unknown god of unknown origin."
As the play progresses, the Fates (also referred to as the Three Facts) become the Three Graces, and pass along the story of the young Antigone and the steadfast uncle she defied to Sophocles himself. (Well, as represented by a hand puppet.) The story is told and retold until it reaches the version we currently know, at which point the play stops: what is is of no interest to Wellman. He's more concerned with what was and what might have been.
That idea, and the stagecraft used to present it, are the most engaging parts of this Antigone. Director Paul Lazar and choreographer Annie-B Parson have done an excellent job of making the play visually appealing, providing almost constant movement onstage, and no shortage of surprises in the way the Fates' journeys are conveyed. (They employ microphones, dust busters, yellow slippers, toy pianos, and more in their telling of the tale.)
Cynthia Hopkins has provided a few attractive songs for the production; Joanne Howard's set design is spartan, but handsome and occasionally surprising; Claudia Stephens's costumes provide nice definition for the characters; Jay Ryan's lights are colorful and inventive; and Jane Shaw's sound design is never overdone. In terms of the acting, Deirdre O'Connell makes an effective Antigone, Rebecca Wisocky is a threatening Creon, Molly Hickok masterfully switches between the blind prophet Teiresias and Creon's wife Eurydice, and Nancy Ellis causes some good laughs and good chills as the fourth Fate and vessel for E Shriek's disembodied voice. Leroy Logan, as E Shriek, is a fine combination of paternal and frightening, Santa Claus by way of Socrates (and Sophocles).
But for all that is good, the production is never as lively or effective as it thinks it is. This production is something of a return engagement, as it played (with much of the same cast) at the Dance Theater Workshop in 2002. (A tour of Germany occurred during the interim period.) I missed the original incarnation, but while there are occasional flashes of brilliance, Wellman's fractured examination of the roots and development of tragedy, and the nature of tyranny, is currently only intermittently effective.
It's the lack of immediacy and freshness that hurts this Antigone more than anything else: the production never feels as crisp and well-defined as it needs to be. The theatrical concept on which Wellman and Lazar have collaborated is daring and intelligent, but it's currently missing the piquant energy needed to really put it across.
Classic Stage Company