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The Burial at Thebes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rebekah Brockman and Paul O'Brien
Photo by Carol Rosegg

For all we so often claim we can learn about the past, we genetically tend toward blotting out the parts of it we don't agree with and pretending that what remains is all there is. This tactic is rampant in American political discourse, and many discussions of religion (I'm aware that I'm at least partially repeating myself), but must it extend to the theatre? Isn't this where great thoughts, great discussions, great controversies have historically begun, inspired by the notion that we may see ourselves—all of ourselves—reflected onstage and, as a result, be compelled to change our minds and actions? And must even the classics be subjected to the flattened polarization in which we're apparently now required to live our entire lives?

With The Burial at Thebes, the new production of the Irish Repertory Theatre at its temporary home at the DR2 Theatre, the answer to all these questions might as well be, "Who cares?" With his new-ish translation (it was published about a decade ago), the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney delivered a dead-eyed spin on Antigone that stripped away the drama inherent in Sophocles's tale of Oedipus's daughter standing up for her beliefs and replaced it with anti–George W. Bush, anti–Iraq War screed cloaked in clever contemporary poetry. Now, by way of a threadbare mounting and casting that, in all but one case, is insulated from any hope of electricity, director Charlotte Moore has ensured that now that poetry doesn't land, either.

What remains is a colossal conundrum, an evening that runs only 65 minutes but nonetheless feels painfully overlong and underseasoned. It should be pointed out that at its barest essence, the genuinely timeless original is still intact underneath. The setup is the same: It's soon after the attack that forms the backbone of Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes, with Antigone vowing to bury her deceased brother, Polyneices, in explicit defiance of the word handed down from King Creon (also her uncle). This is, as always, an act that not only sends ripples of destructive change throughout the city and Antigone's family, but forces Creon to consider whether political might does, in fact, always make social right.

But by painting his version of the conflict in stark, unyielding terms that render Creon as stone-headed as they do Antigone noble, Heaney communicates nothing fresh or of consequence, in words that, in a theater, are rarely worth listening to. "Was I going to humor you, or honor gods?", Antigone asks Creon at one point. "Sooner or later I'll die anyhow / And sooner may be better in my case: / This death penalty is almost a relief. If I had to live and suffer in the knowledge / That Polyneices was lying above ground / Insulted and defiled, that would be worse / Than having to suffer any doom of yours."

"We'll wait and see," Creon responds. "The bigger the resistance / The bigger the collapse. / Iron that's forged the hardest / Snaps the quickest."

Or, more grating still, Creon once he sees where his wayward steadfastness has led him: "Make way for your king of wrong. / Wrong-headed on the throne, / Wrong-headed in the home, / Wrong-footed by the heavens. / And you, dear son, dead son, / I was wrong to harry you."

Katie Fabel and Rebekah Brockman
Photo by Carol Rosegg

A theatrical symphony this is not, and such messy meddling transforms this previously multifaceted work into the tut-tutting tragedy of one man who simply doesn't know how to listen to others. By the time he learns, of course, it's too late, but you don't sense, as you really should, that he and Antigone are both victors and both victims: By destroying the latter and all but exalting the former, both are cheapened, their messages and values denuded practically to invisibility.

Beyond this, however, is Heaney and Moore's joint muting of the two critical grander contexts against which this battle of wills unfolds. The first is that of the gods, who are uncharacteristically uninvolved and uninterested this time around. Perhaps worse is the deletion of the chorus. Oh, their lines are still present, but Moore has reassigned them to the various actors to deliver in character, as though there's no difference between, say, Antigone's fiancé Haemon or mother Eurydice and the group of Theban elders Sophocles (and, well, Heaney) outlined.

Combine these changes with stiff, cramped staging on a Tony Walton set that looks, for some unfathomable reason, like the deck of a ship, Linda Fisher's thoroughly generic "back then" costumes, and Brian Nason's Pirates of the Caribbean lighting, and the universe becomes one in which everyone operates without having to answer to, or for that matter merely be cognizant of, anyone—celestial or terrestrial—who may be watching or judging them. This changes a sweeping, riveting tale of societal, religious, and personal obligation into a flavorless depiction of a petty family squabble, bereft of heat, history, or point.

The lack of any underlying structure so restricts the actors that it seems as though most of them are merely off-book and haven't begun exploring their characters as people. Rebekah Brockman's entitled, student-myopic take on Antigone and Paul O'Brien's stiltingly professorial Creon suggests that they and their chemistry would be better suited for a summer stock run of David Mamet's Oleanna. Winsome Brown is a hollowed-out, almost dazed Eurydice that projects the mien of a first-time supernumerary at the Met. As the blind seer Tieresias, Robert Langdon Lloyd conveys vocal strength but no supernatural authority; Rod Borgan and Colin Lane, respectively the Messenger and the Guard, give small, showy performances that don't mesh with their stolid, functionary characters. Ciarán Bowling is far too lightweight to be completely right for Haemon, but he hints at a potential, if untapped, strength, that with time could be developed into the necessary complexities.

Only Katie Fabel, who plays Antigone's sister Ismene, is an unqualified success. Her entire manner, from her posture to her voice to even the drop of her hair, is that of a young woman torn between extremes: striving to maintain her blood-innate regality while longing to do the right thing by her deities and her lineage alike. When Fabel's Ismene pleads before Creon to assume some of Antigone's responsibility to keep them on equal footing, the show finds tension and genuine emotion for the first—and only—time all evening.

Fabel does what no one else has been able to do with The Burial at Thebes, and bridges the gap between personal conviction and outside expectation, and lets us see the agonized heartbreak we can incur when an imbalance forms between them. It's a sumptuous scene linking to Antigone at its best, and reminding you of the power that you're denied experiencing at every other step along this awkward, anesthetized rethinking.

The Burial at Thebes
Through March 6
DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street at 20 Union Square East
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