nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
March 12, 2009
Entering The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens is a small adventure. Not far from the train, but absolutely hidden, The Queens Players have found a diamond in the rough. As I took my seat, I took in the simple set. Handmade Grecian columns decorated with handmade masks frame a classic altar centerpiece. It is instantly clear that the audience is in for something classic.
Director Greg Cicchino has made a very specific decision to pay homage to the ancient Greek theatre with Antigone. In his director's notes he says "We seek to help you find the message in the way it was originally intended, using the most powerful storytelling elements we have—the voice and the body." Dressed in sexless, neutral togas, the ensemble stays absolutely true to this mission, using over-the-top gesturing and loud vocal patterns delivered exclusively beneath their stifling masks. We do not see a human face until curtain call. Frequently the vocal quality becomes nasal or muffled due to the actors performing exclusively beneath the masks. Still, the masks are effective. The ensemble members change personas by swapping the masks and adding minimal costume pieces to clarify the characters.
Using primarily their bodies and the impressive moveable columns, the ensemble creates lovely pictures. R. Allen Babcock has done a spectacular job with his lighting design. He uses light on the white stage like a painter uses color on a blank canvas. The lighting is as much a part of this story as the words. Rarely have I seen a technical aspect of a show add so much to a production. It is almost as if the light were another character in the show.
The group absolutely sends off the classic quality. Only one question remains—is this the most effective way to tell this contemporarily applicable story to modern audiences? The Greeks needed dramatic masks and large indicating movements as devices to tell their stories. There were hundreds of people in their audiences and most of them were quite far away. In the intimate space of The Secret Theatre, the same choices are overwhelming in a distracting way. The vocal patterns lull the audience like a poem rather than painting the descriptions of what has happened off stage. All of this would have been completely appropriate in an amphitheater outside. Here however, it took me out of the moment. I was never taken to another place, my consciousness never left the theatre.
At times some of the actors break out of the over-the-top vocals. Ira Sargent as Haemon is smooth and relatable speaking to his father, Kreon, who is played with consistent strength by David R. Doumeng in a manner fitting for the situation. Sargent is a true craftsman, swapping out not only his mask when he changes characters, but his energy, body stance, and vocals. Another standout performance comes from Chris Duncan as the Sentry. Using very simple choices he finds the human being that exists beyond the enormity of the story. Duncan understands the text and finds the humor. I enjoyed Katie Braden's interpretation of the blind prophet Teiresias as well. Braden has an excellent handle on the language. She uses the text to her advantage, breaking away from the vocal patterns that characterize the production throughout, and director Cicchino makes clever use of the masks as her guide.
Dara Tiller's very passionate interpretation of the title role left me wanting. She is, without a doubt, a strong and committed character, but we are never allowed to see the vulnerability. Even when Antigone is imprisoned and left for dead, we do not see, or more importantly feel, her fear. Even when a character is as rebellious and filled with conviction as Antigone, making them human is the key to making them relatable. To her credit, she has been placed beneath an awkward mask and a long wig of yarn-like tresses that give her the aura of a creepy rag doll, but that could have pushed her to further her vocals to humanity rather than consistent angry emotion.
Overall this was an effective night at the theatre. The smart, quick cutting of this tragedy is an excellent example of Ancient Greek drama. Cicchino knew what he wanted and put it on stage. If you are looking to see what the ancient Greeks would have seen, it is absolutely worth a trip to Queens to see this lovely production from a company with an enormous amount of potential. Not bad, Queens Players, not bad at all.