The Burial at Thebes
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
January 27, 2007
Nary a theatre season passes in New York without at least a few productions, renderings, and adaptations of Greek drama. This winter brings La MaMa's offering of The Burial at Thebes, a version of Sophocles's Antigone as written by well-known poet Seamus Heaney. This production, a work of the Eleventh Hour Theatre Company and director Alexander Harrington, follows the tragedy of Antigone, daughter of the ill-fated Oedipus, and her trials as she is forced to defy the law of the king to give her own brother a proper burial.
The first element of this Antigone that draws the audience's attention is the script itself. Those unfamiliar with Greek drama, or off-put by the stilted language of older translations, are likely to be intrigued by Heaney's script. The dialogue is quite modern-sounding. The author also produced a well-received translation of Beowulf, and won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, so there is much to be said for his poet's sense of timing and conversation.
The story of The Burial at Thebes is of a ruler who is set in his path and will not brook contention, and of the young woman who defies him in spite of the risk to her own life. Heaney's play clearly intends for King Creon to sound like a modern politician or, say...President, who will not stray from his rhetoric and listen to the cries of a disquieted public, no matter how disastrous the results. Gender politics are also given voice in Heaney's script, as Creon rails against the disruptive actions of women, hoping they will soon be "put in their place again." The chorus repeatedly warns Creon of the dangers of his path of self-righteousness and rigidity, but he will take no advisement on the matter, forcing Antigone to act specifically against the letter of his law and condemning herself to a death sentence by so doing.
The most outstanding aspects of this production are the chorus and the original music by Carman Moore written for the show (some of it performed live). With, by my count, 21 actors in this production, the stage sometimes literally teems with human movement. Indeed, the sheer number of performers has a thrilling potential, especially as the chorus consists of 13 actors who usually perform together en masse. And truly, at its best, the group's choreography has all the grace of a flock of birds. Strangely, though, at other points the same group's movements appear clunky and aimless. The chorus's parts, almost entirely sung, are performed by a talented group of young actors, many of whom appear to have had years of training. The music provides a depth and momentum to the work that keeps the piece from ever becoming stagnant. The score is mainly slow and deliberate, which works beautifully for the harmonies and to showcase the voices of the actors, but does tend toward predictability by the end.
The design does not always seem to to serve Heaney's politically charged script, rather detracting from it, producing a stage world full of somewhat cryptic symbols. The extreme makeup design made me think of the humanoid aliens from Star Trek or Babylon 5. That alienation may well have been the point, as well as a nod to the Greek masked tradition, but I found it initially off-putting. The stage design is overtly minimal and remains almost totally static throughout the work. It should be noted, however, that this production makes exceptional use of the depth of the space—the entire theatre, from the audience wall to the stage wall—enabling some effective tableaus. The costumes are identical sets of dirty and loose smocks and pants in muted colors, which produces an equalizing effect where the royalty and peasants differ only in that the monarchs wear shoes and their subjects go barefoot.
There are some fine performances to look out for, which do a great deal to illuminate the text. As the bearer of bad tidings—the guard/messenger forced into the position of telling the pugnacious king unwelcome news—actor Raymond McAnally has wonderful comic timing and charm in portraying his character as remarkably guileless and well-intentioned. Also strong is Frank Anderson as a hopelessly misguided Creon. The actor's voice and presence command a very convincing amount of authority, and convey no small amount of actual threat.
In spite of some inconsistencies, director Alexander Harrington brings a good deal to the timeless story of Antigone. Between Heaney's easily comprehensible and colloquial adaptation, an unusually large and talented cast, and the rich contribution of original music; there is quite a bit here to interest an audience, especially one who might not already be familiar with the many tragedies of Oedipus and his line.