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Antigone Unearthed

nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 12, 2012

Visually, Antigone Unearthed, Rachel Broderick and Sophia Treanor’s all-female adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, is striking, beginning with the main scenic element, a thick layer of soil spread across the stage that adds a visceral note in both the way it marks the bodies of the performers and in its distinctly recognizable smell. The staging often evokes a Greek frieze, with the women in draped black and cream costumes, posed in almost sculptural arrangements. On an almost bare stage, the bodies also entwine to serve as furniture and props (a throne for Queen Creon, handcuffs for Antigone). The addition of a chorus of Furies (Eva Amessé, Amanda McDowell, and Emma Wisniewski), dressed in black and underscoring the action with harrowing chanting, also packs a sensory punch.

Broderick’s approach to the traditional story is intriguing, though not always entirely convincing. Where Sophocles’s Antigone focuses on the consequences that befall both Antigone and Creon after she defies the king to bury her brother, this version focuses more on Antigone, looking at the time before the burial and the act itself. Once Antigone’s action has been discovered, some of the momentum goes out of the story. Making all the characters women reaps some narrative and thematic rewards--the idea of Creon as queen rather than king, hanging on to power only because the male relatives are dead, and only until she is forced into marriage, changes the nature of Antigone’s threat to her rule significantly. And Antigone’s dead brothers become the central male figures in the story; the levers of power are shaped differently when all the men are dead.

But the re-gendering has some problematic consequences too: changing Antigone’s lover from the king’s son and heir to the throne to the king’s daughter lowers the stakes, and makes their relationship more of a conventional love story than something tied directly to the power struggle at the heart of the play.

I wish the acting had been stronger. Trying, I think, for a stylized performance quality akin to the movement and staging vocabulary, Broderick and Treanor instead often got very emphatic overacting. Treanor, who plays the Sibyl (prophetess and stand-in for Sophocles’s Chorus), strikes an eerie, menacing note, but many of the other actors, especially in the  scenes with Antigone and Haemon, come too close to melodrama.

But even if the whole doesn’t entirely hold together, there are undeniably creepy and powerful elements here, tapping into an archaic and chaotic energy, and a deep physicality, a real sense of flesh and blood, of dirt and death.