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Antigone

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

Is it too much to imagine President George W. Bush as King Creon in Sophocles's classic tragedy Antigone? No, the Greek play hasn't taken a comic turn, but The National Asian American Theatre Company's new production of Antigone can't help but create parallels between the tragic leader of Sophocles's work and the current state of war and international politics.

It's amazing how relevant and timely this production is. To refresh one's mind of this classic work, Antigone (Eunice Wong), the daughter of Oedipus, bemoans the fact that King Creon (Mia Katigbak) has prohibited anyone from burying her recently slain brother Polyneices. Not allowing this law to get in her way, Antigone attempts to bury Polyneices, only to be arrested and exiled to a black hole among the rocks. Despite the fact that Antigone seems to be in the right, Creon refuses to rescind his decree and, like all good Greek tragedies, sets into motion a series of events that brings about the deaths of multiple characters.

Though not made explicit by NAATC, the play cannot help but mirror current events. The stubborn Creon, who has unflinching belief in the power of law, refuses to change his course of action until the last moment, thereby evoking a certain fundamentalist leader who seems equally bent on destruction. Even as the masses question and protest Creon's policies, Creon refuses to concede his position. Similarly, in light of how Antigone and her dead brother are treated, the play evokes the recent treatment of prisoners and bodies in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Yet, despite the relevance of the play to U.S. and international politics, NAATC's production oddly enough left me feeling cold and relatively detached from the events portrayed. The company, in an effort to make the text more contemporary and accessible to current audiences, employs a new translation by Brendan Kennelly that is eloquent, poetic, and often lyrical. However, director Jean Randich has staged the piece in an overly mannered and stylized fashion, engendering a sort of Brechtian disconnect between the audience and the text. At times, this style works positively to create a sort of ritualized form of theater, particularly in Randich's use of the play's eight-person chorus, which literally sings, dances, and beats sticks to create a rhythmic background to the play's events. On the whole, though, the stylized direction, while evoking the epic and tragic dimensions of Sophocles's play, seems emotionally distancing. The play's production values also waver between the abstract, from Sue Rees's simple set made of wooden slats and rocks, to the more contemporary suits by costume designer Elly van Horne.

NAATC's Antigone has, with one exception, a well-rounded, strong, and talented cast. Eunice Wong is a fierce, angry, and moving Antigone, portraying the title character both as a fragile, scared child and as a raging fury who will challenge everyone who crosses her path. Art Acuņa as Haemon, Creon's son and Antigone's betrothed, is compelling as the play's voice of reason who challenges his father's orders. The play also has an incredibly united chorus that sings the somewhat forgettable music of composer Robert Murphy with beauty and close harmony. Chorus members Nicky Paraiso and Orville Mendoza are standouts who double as Tiresias and a Guard to Creon, respectively.

Where the play falls short, though, is with the miscasting of Mia Katigbak as Creon. The reasons behind this gender-bending casting twist are somewhat of a mystery. Though much of the play is indeed about the gender hierarchy between men and women and the drama can be read as an early proto-feminist work, inverting the gender of only one character adds little to the play's interpretation. Perhaps an entire production in which the all the gender roles are reversed might prove more fruitful. As played by Katigbak, though, Creon does not register as the forceful cyclone of energy that is supposed to drive the tragedy. Katigbak is clearly a strong actress who has a prestigious acting history, but she is miscast in this play, costumed in an ill-fitting suit with a short haircut that makes her look like a cross between a prepubescent boy and an extremely butch woman. Though occasionally rising to the heights of fury, Katigbak's performance is too cool (and one might say not masculine enough) to spark this production. Instead, Creon comes off as an unsure boy-king who is simply play-acting at leadership. Though this might serve as an interesting critique of Creon's character, given the straightforward and traditional performances of the other actors, it's a choice that doesn't work. Despite Antigone being the play's titular character, Creon is really the play's central figure and without an earth-shattering actor in this role, the play loses its center.

For the most part, NAATC turns out an intriguing, if imperfect production of Antigone and given the play's relevance to current events, many audiences will find it a thought-provoking evening. If all the director's choices don't always pay off, it can't be said that the play lacks vision, regardless of how that vision is executed. Though this production left me in the cold, given that Sophocles's work is oft-produced, I'm sure it won't be long until another Antigone comes along to heat things up.

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National Asian-American Theatre Company
Antigone
Through August 14
Intar 53 Theatre, 508 West 53rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.244.0447