The trouble with Greek tragedies is that they tend to be Greek to us. Losing too much in translation isn’t a problem with the intelligent and relevant The Dreams of Antigone, now in its world premiere at Trinity Repertory Company (through October 26).
Its first version was written by the theater’s artistic director, Curt Columbus, and the play has come to have an unusual co-credit added: “& Trinity Rep’s Resident Acting Company.” Honesty like that is remarkable in theater.
Yet the result, 85 brisk minutes, is not at all like a play written by committee. The final staging is a lucid telling of a complex story. Relying on the Sophocles versions of the Greek legends and incorporating smatterings of his text, the play reconstructs the conflicts of the House of Cadmus. Creon is the king of Thebes, who feels duty bound to have Antigone executed. Originally titled Antigone Anew, the play uses the freedom of dream life — that of Creon as well as her — to go over encounters and confrontations, conversations that occurred and some that might have if ghosts could talk.
Although there are many supporting characters, the central story is simple, taking place amidst the fluted columns and marble rubble of Tristan Jeffers’s set design. Antigone (Rachael Warren) buries one of her two brothers — they have fallen in battle, killed by each other. Such a ritual had been forbidden by King Creon (Fred Sullivan Jr.) because the young man had led the rebellion against him. Despite Creon’s sympathy and understanding of her loyalty, he cannot tolerate her defiance of his first edict as ruler. Otherwise, the center will not hold, as W.B. Yeats would later fear, in a more broadly existential regard — anarchy would be loosed upon Thebes.
The difficulty of succeeding with an adaptation of Antigone can hardly be overstated. I’ve seen more than my share of them and can’t recall one that has so fully developed the strands of sub-themes and character relationships that whip about and spark like downed power lines. Most productions go straight for the money: girl meets conscience, king meets both, king kills rebellious niece, regret ensues. Trinity audiences have more in store.
A word of warning: this play is Rated P. Theatergoers seriously allergic to presentational theater, with actors addressing the audience, sometimes in stentorian tones, should bring their EpiPens. This is a modern update, but it is a Greek tragedy.
As the lights go up, the first words are “We the people,” and fragments of the preamble to the US Constitution are recited to us by the ensemble/chorus. They repeat and overlap reminders of such matters of concern — and collective responsibility — as “a more perfect union” and “secur[ing] the blessings of liberty.” Serious stuff, appropriately declaimed with jut-jawed firmness. As with the first Greek choruses, who addressed audiences that were thoroughly acquainted with mythic history, this initial address is intended not to provide information but to remind listeners of what they already know.
Then, right away we get into not just the plot, but also a crucial characterization point about Creon. Arguing with Oedipus (Joe Wilson Jr.), whom he knows to be dead and only imagined, Creon says that he didn’t want to be a politician, he just wanted to write plays, saying, “I took control because someone had to.” This reluctance gives depth to his character, later contrasting starkly with his bullheadedness, as he becomes driven by anger and ego. Most importantly, this sets the stage for him to understand that Antigone’s lawbreaking was simply trying to do the right thing. Sullivan beautifully balances this dual aspect of Creon that he shares with Antigone, his motivation swaying between duty and pride.
Director Brian McEleney finds ingenious ways to lighten serious moods with humor, letting this play breathe. As every schoolboy knows, Oedipus had unknowingly married his mother, Jocasta (Anne Scurria), Creon’s sister, and as they kiss in the king’s imagination, the chorus groans and squirms uncomfortably at the sight. Creon quips, “Well, that never worked when you were alive,” which also establishes that he is dreaming.
The king addresses the Thebians, saying that now, after four years of war, they will rebuild. This is when he prevents the burial of his traitorous nephew, Polyneices, insisting that, “Death will not allow this monster to escape.” Intriguingly, the chorus comments: “We know this story. You know this story. How is it possible for you to be shocked?” What a marvelous risk, to call attention to the challenge of theatrical storytelling.
After this and a few other brief but heavily charged scenes that lay out the back story, the tone relaxes again. In the kitchen of the royal household, the atmosphere lightens to the point of comic relief, as the servants banter and complain to their taskmistress Agave (Barbara Meek). Here Scurria is Xanthippe, too hung over to work willingly; such contrast to moments before, when she was the regal Jocasta. Again the bitter and the sweet mingle, as Xanthippe remarks matter-of-factly to fellow servant Meletia (Janice Duclos) about mourning her children, who were killed in the latest war. Later, Duclos gives a quietly powerful address to the audience, stage front, as Meletia simply states that she misses her husband, who was also killed in the fighting.