Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Upstream Theater

Also see Richard's review of The Diary of Anne Frank

Maggie Conroy
The lights fade slowly to black, as Sophocles' fifth century B.C. tragedy begins, and there's a keening of music and voices—braided together in mourning. And it's clear, just like that: we've been utterly swallowed up in legend. It's also clear, then and there, that Upstream Theatre can do more in pure darkness than most theaters could ever do full-up.

I will tell you, the first act seemed a little rough on opening night, and also probably a little predictable to anyone familiar with the style of ancient Greek theater. But in act two, all the fools have turned stunningly wise, and the king (the always imposing Peter Mayer) is grandly reduced to a horrible, lowly state. It's a wondrous turn of events, and well-worth waiting for. In fact, when it's all over, there's catharsis: an overwhelming sense of peace in the air, as after a awful storm.

And that, in spite of the modern fashion, is what tells you Sophocles is still powerfully relevant to something in the human spirit. Nearly every important plot point happens off-stage, and is reported by someone else, as with the admirable John Bratkowski and Nancy Lewis (one as a comical soldier and the other as an urgent messenger). So a lot of the pressure is on Mr. Mayer, and Maggie Conroy as Antigone, to make up for all the absent swordplay and bloodletting we've grown to expect. But they pay in full, and anything that's taken away in terms of murder and suicide (by leaving it off-stage) is more than adequately recompensed in spiritual ruination.

That said, on opening night three or four college kids disappeared from the audience after intermission, never to return. Probably because the first act is so devoted to the steady work of setting up the story—which reminds me of a production of The Merchant of Venice I had a small part in, back in 1999. That show was all "plot set-ups" in the first half, too. And at the intermission fifteen years ago, during a matinee for high school kids at the Grandel Theatre, some boy in the audience shouted from the other side of the closed curtain, "you suck!" (as some privileged kid, raised on video games and action movies, might do).

But when Shakespeare had sprung every single trap in the explosive second act (the Bard's acts four and five, technically), that show got a huge ovation at the very end, with John Contini as Shylock. Anyway, the setup/payoff structure is surprisingly similar here. I wish those kids this time had stayed for the end of Antigone.

Wendy Renee Greenwood is touching as Antigone's sister in the first part, and then towering and majestic and mysterious as Creon's wife in that splendid second act (with a great costume by LaLonnie Lehman). Based on her recent work, I'm starting to think Ms. Greenwood could soon be regarded as quite an important actress.

Mr. Mayer and Ms. Conroy (and nearly all the other actors on stage) obey the classical stricture to just stand there and take it, while another character nails them verbally, and at length. But (the almost always princely) Andrew Michael Neiman, as Creon's noble-minded son Haemon, is allowed to follow the much more modern style of "active listening": responding physically, in the very moment, to what's being said. It's a clever risk that he and director Philip Boehm take, and Mr. Neiman's charming technique happens to be right in line with Haemon's more modern philosophy. But like Mr. Bratkowski (excellent as a soothsayer in act two), he also has to think very fast and work hard to penetrate the stony mask of Creon. So that makes for some pretty fancy psychological swordplay, after all.

On opening night, the chorus seemed a bit rough, particularly in act one. But they really caught fire (figuratively speaking, for all you Medea fans out there) after the break, with passion and paganism to spare.

Newly translated by David Slavitt, Antigone continues through October 26, 2014, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand (between SLU and the Fox Theatre). Free parking is sometimes available on Lindell Blvd. after 7:00pm, but not long after. For more information visit www.upstreamtheater.org.

Onstage (order of appearance)
Antigone: Maggie Conroy**
Ismene: Wendy Renee Greenwood
Chorus: Dennis Lebby*, Norman McGowan*, Patrick Siler*
Creon: Peter Mayer*
Guard: John Bratkowski*
Haemon: Andrew Michael Neiman
Tiresias: John Bratkowski*
Messenger: Nancy Lewis**
Eurydice: Wendy Renee Greenwood

Director: Philip Boehm
Scenic Design: Michael Heil***
Costume Design: LaLonnie Lehman
Lighting Design: Steve Carmichael
Prop Design: Claudia Horn
Production Manager: Tony Anselmo
Stage Manager: Emily Clinger*
Assistant Director: Michael Dorsey
Assistant Costume Design: Rissa Crozier
Technical Director: Theron Seckington
Scenic Artist (panels): James van Well***
Scenic Artist (stage): Cristie Johnston
Light Board Operator: Laurel Kassenbrock
Assistant Stage Manager: Caitlin Mickey**
Wardrobe: Theresa Loebl
House Managers: Svetlana Slizskaya, Kristina Cirone

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the professional union of actors and stage managers in the USA

** Denotes Equity Membership Candidate

*** Denotes Member, United Scenic Artists Local 829

Photo by Peter Wochniak

-- Richard T. Green

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