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Too Much Memory

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Peter Jay Fernandez and Laura Heisler.
Photo by Paula Court .

"This play is presented in the present," the actor Michael Moran says at the beginning of Too Much Memory, which just opened at the Fourth Street Theatre. He continues: "But I think there's a difference between the present and contemporary." Indeed, and that difference - as well as the occasional lack of it - is crucial to the decisive success of Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's "adaptation of an adaptation of a re-translation" of Sophocles's Antigone.

For this play does not look, sound, or behave like any other Greek tragedy some director has callously "updated" with modern accoutrements, obscuring with a layer of dust the latent meaning two dozen centuries couldn't hide. It is, for all intents and purposes, a new work with a historical basis. In its rigorous rethinking of everything that composes its story, it recalls Charles Mee's own Greek revampings, even going so far as to incorporate excerpts from famous folk as diverse as Richard Nixon, Peter Brook, and Susan Sontag.

If this list - plus Gibson's "here and now" minimalistic direction and Moran's omnipresence as an alienation inducing narrator oddly called "Chorus" - reeks of pretension, the rest of the play could not be freer of it. The trials of Antigone (an intense Laura Heisler), her sister Ismene (Aria Alpert), their uncle Creon (Peter Jay Fernandez) and the others populating a political hotspot simmering somewhere between Ancient Thebes and modern-day Washington, D.C., could easily have been ripped from yesterday's gossip blogs, with only the names changed to protect the guilty.

There's no world-class emoting, no speechifying, no deus ex machina - just the real-seeming troubles of real-seeming people in a world that's hopefully too real to actually exist. Children struggle to escape their parents' shadows, a trophy wife (Creon's own, Eurydice, played with a stony, Cindy McCain stateliness by Wendy vanden Heuvel) frets over increasingly diminished role in public and personal discourse, and soldiers sworn to obey their commander-in-chief (Jamel Rodriguez, MacLeod Andrews, and Ray Anthony Thomas) chafe against their own roles in the war between law and disorder.

It all derives directly from the Greek original, but with scenes reenvisioned as shadowy backroom deals or committee hearings, a harrowing Guantanamo Bay-style torture scene, and even laptops and cell phones playing crucial roles in the plot, it never feels like it. The play's multimedia, clash-of-cultures leanings might have been ideal for the Fringe Festival (where it premiered this past summer), but it never feels that Reddin and Gibson are stretching - and it almost never feels inauthentic.

The exception is during the exposition: It's less believable in our world than in Sophocles's that Creon would make a political statement by refusing to bury Antigone and Ismene's dead brother Polynices, the event on which the rest of the action turns. But excepting this, the rebellious Antigone's antagonism with the might-makes-right Creon and her fraught affair with his son Haemon (an undefined Seth Numrich), stripped of its stuffy cotton coating and instead plated in steel, makes for a deeply incisive 65 minutes of theatre.

None of the performers displays quite the weight you'd undoubtedly experience watching a traditional interpretation of Antigone, which is to their benefit: This forces you to view everyone as a human divorced of the influence of the Gods, operating under their own accord for the good - or ill - of all. Heisler is remarkable, so fiery and defiant in her repudiation of Creon's self-absorbed policies, you can easily envision her leading a whole revolution by herself; she wields microphones like weapons, cell phones as holy objects, and wears her own fortitude as a second skin. Alpert is more reserved, but delicately skates on a thin sheet of pain that doesn't completely crack until the play's climax - a wonderful moment.

Most interesting, however, is Fernandez's Creon. Deceptively imposing yet outwardly gentle and fielding a threatening baritone, he's the model of respectable evil. Yet you never believe his legislation of religion or morality comes from anywhere but an innermost core of sincerity: Like the most fiendish of political monsters, he commits the most heinous acts for the most understandable of reasons.

His plight is perhaps the most applicable to our own times, with one president roundly accused of similar actions and another promising a new direction but possessing no proof of his ability to deliver it - it surely can't be a coincidence that though Fernandez's Creon echoes George W. Bush in actions but Barack Obama in appearance and voice. Politics, like theatre, hasn't changed much in the last 2,500 years, but Too Much Memory gives both an invigorating new spin.

Too Much Memory
Through December 22
4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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