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Antigone — Wilma Theater

antigone interiorCall me Philistine.

The pity of Theodoros Terzopoulos’s production of “Antigone” for Wilma Theater is so much effort, exactitude, and fine execution have gone into this handsome, ritualistic staging only to be eclipsed by its emotional void and dramatic inertness. The terror is Terzopoulos’s highly physical, exclusively intellectual style will be a lauded trend in world theater, an unfortunate circumstance that would summon an event I’ve always said was impossible, the death of the theater.

Terzopoulos is always precise and often creative. But even more than Doug Hara in the Arden’s “Metamorphoses,” he puts form so ahead of content, you’re left with pretty pictures and strong images that may have merit in their own right, and certainly show the muscular prowess of the male chorus, but do nothing or advance Sophocles’s tragedy of “Antigone” or make Terzopoulos’s rendition more than an overdone, overthought moral tale.

Except for Sarah Gliko’s late entry in the relatively minor role of Eurydice, and Brian Ratcliffe’s accompanying reaction as Eurydice’s son, Haemon, Terzopoulous’s production has nothing human, touching, or engaging about it. It tells you  the myth, but it doesn’t act out the passion or decency of Antigone or the political coldness and eventual regret of her adversary, Creon. You see and hear plenty. You feel nothing because Terzopoulous is more concerned with the visual or having the characters make odd sounds, the chorus expending deep breaths or one of the Teiresiases running short of breath as he delivers what amounts to an audible reverie, than he is in wringing emotion from the plight of Antigone, a Theban princess who, despite Creon’s official edict, wants to bury her slain brother, enemy of the people, as Creon says he is, or not.

Even when the male chorus in going through its contortionist gyrations, you admire their meticulous skill and control more than you’re moved by anything they say or do. In the long run, this fastidious, well-toned troupe invents the new Olympic sport of synchronized masturbation. One of their chants and incantations sounds hauntingly like the one Atlanta Braves croon to the tomahawk chop.

I can’t help being glib (flippant?). That’s the image they conjure and the sound I hear.

Thank goodness for such images. Not because they’re often erotic but because at least they give us something to watch, The male chorus ranks among several of Terzopoulous’s curiosities, the first of which in already on stage when the audience enters to see a trembling Stathis Grapsas standing rigidly straight, though shaking at the knees, and spouting a litany in Greek that sounds both portentous and like someone rehearsing to be the auctioneer in a vintage American Tobacco commercial. He is the Teiresias who begins phrases in a clear baritone then loses breath as his voice ascends to a high squeal, a lot like the aunt, Gert, does in Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.”

You can help but ponder what’s in store as you focus on Grapsas’s gibbering and gibberish, the sword of Damocles poised over his head. Once the play begins, and you find out, Terzopoulos’s “Antigone” becomes and remains a great disappointment. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, “there’s no there there.” The director’s production is as empty as the modern Greek treasury and as interesting as a reading of a 20th century telephone book.

Beyond some beautifully choreographed sequences, it gives you nothing to savor and nothing that engages, let alone moves, you. Terzopoulos’s staging goes through the motions, and that’s it. Sabotaging himself dramatically, Terzopoulos matches his elaborate physical presentation with stark, lifeless recitations from Antigone or nervous diatribes that seem directed towards no one by Creon. Nothing backs the plea for decency or the plaintive hope that Creon might relent as Jennifer Kidwell’s Antigone speaks. No worry or fear comes from knowing she will resist her uncle’s royal authority and do as her duty dictates. Creon, often lost upstage left, demonstrates his anger but everything Antonis Miriagos does with his part, whether muttering in a corner or berating his niece, is so stylized and computed to create an effect rather than to be affecting, it registers as expressionistic containment or explosion that generates neither theatrical nor dramatic value, an ongoing symptom of what’s wrong with this “Antigone.”

In a word, Terzopoulos’s production is twaddle. It is worse than the banality it makes of Antigone’s tale, the monotony it brings to storytelling, or the chicanery it tries to palm off as theater. It pretends to artistry, to greatness that is a supposed breakthrough in dramatic rendering and personal style when it’s only an egregiously self-indulgent exaggerated minstrel show that not only misses the mark as art but fails as entertainment. Though impressed with the agile muscularity of the male chorus, I was bored.

Ancient stories don’t endure because of their place in narrative history or some stuffily preserved tradition. The latter is what threatens to kill them. They last because they present conflicts and conundrums that illuminate the challenge of being human and of being wise. The plots of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and their Roman and Judean counterparts are rife with dilemmas that span time, the problems that never seem to get solved or repeat themselves in various forms throughout history, including that being made today.

Antigone is a woman who wants to put family above politics and the dignity of the individual above the power, and in this case, tyranny of the state. She also wants to assert her and her late brother’s rights as members of the royal household to be treated with some honor. Creon is a man who wants to uphold order and goes to an extent he thinks is instructive and deterring without properly judging how cruel, inhumane, autocratic, and divisive he’s being, even in his own home considering Antigone is engaged to marry his son, Haemon, an act that will unite his and his sister, Jocasta’s, families.in a significant, politically savvy way.  Practical politics and familial sentiment are at war here. Creon wants Polyneices’s body to rot as carrion as a warning to all who would challenge his authority with insurrection. Antigone simply wants to bury her dead brother with the decorum she believes is his and every person’s due.

Antigone has the moral and sentimental high ground. Creon is only emperor because Theban law prohibits women from ruling. Otherwise, Antigone or her sister, Ismene, would have ascended to her father, Oedipus’s, throne when her brothers, the ruling Eteocles and the wronged Polyneices slay each other in battle after Eteocles welches on a fraternal deal that allowed each brother to govern Thebes in alternating years, one transferring sovereignty to the other on each ancient Greek equivalent of January 1. As Oedipus’s curse continues with the death of his sons, and his daughters being ineligible to rule, Creon, the brother of Oedipus’s wife and mother, Jocasta, takes the Theban throne. Because Polyneices was considered a rebel for attacking Eteocles when he wouldn’t relinquish power at the end of his year. Creon wants to make an example of his as an insurrectionist and decrees he cannot be buried with sanctity or honor. Antigone is determined to extend her brother the obsequies of noble death. He is a prince, but more than that, he is her kin. She will not let her petulant governor of an uncle deny Polyneices proper solemnity, whatever his political purpose. She will defy his order and inter her dead. She is also aware of the irony that Polyneices never struck against Creon but against Eteocles who was withholding the throne Polyneices was scheduled, by law, to assume.

You see all the combinations and permutations of logic, rectitude, practicality, and love in Creon’s dictum and Antigone’s defiance. You see all of the occasions for vaulted emotion and drama. Even the Greek precept that action happen off stage to be reported by characters or the chorus cannot weaken the dramatic and emotional potential of this early instance of the ongoing battle between humans and their governments, of political policy above individual condition.

“Antigone” is the embryo of drama, and Sophocles has endowed with all of the emotional and polemic heft it needs to enthrall, entertain, and startle. There needs to be pity when Antigone is threatened with ignoble death by execution if she buries Polyneices. There needs to be terror when is it clear she will disobey Creon as do as she deems morally appropriate.

Theodoros Terzopoulos put none of that on the Wilma stage. Worse, he muddled his attempt at a direct, unadorned verbal approach by presenting half of the dialogue in Greek with supertitles offering Marianne McDonald’s translations.

The objections in 2009 when Arthur Laurents had Maria and Anita sing some Bernstein-Sondheim numbers in Spanish made no sense because the two women, and particularly Maria, were newly arrived from Puerto Rico and would find expression more natural in that tongue. Besides, the larger percentage of the audience knew the songs and could do translations in their heads.

NealBoxTerzopoulos’s “Antigone” is set in one place, as Greek custom would mandate, and has characters who speak a single language. While Sarah Gliko and the male chorus sounded wonderful speaking Greek, the use of the language made Terzopoulous’s production more inaccessible than it was going to be from its emotionally inert readings. It alienated an audience that needed to be invited into Antigone’s plight, not distanced from it. It forced the Wilma audience to move their eyes from the stage, where the visual was the only element that was mildly engaging, and disrupt concentration on the speakers who were having enough trouble raising interest and finding an engrossing pitch or tone to their work. Unless Miriagos and the other Greek actors in the cast could not handle being intelligible in English, there’s no excuse for not doing the play in the language of the audience watching it. As noted, I can understand Laurents’s decision and why Ivo van Hove had his troupe present two Ingmar Bergman pieces in Swedish, but in this “Antigone’s” case, I think the use of Greek one more example of Terzopoulos’s self-conscious showiness.

Various characters, most notably Gliko’s Ismene, got matters right when they moaned, “We are lost.” The audience should have joined her in her rocking movement and intoned the judgmental words with her. We were lost in a miasma of style over substance.

Terzopoulos did everything but present “Antigone.” Sophocles’s play might appear at the Wilma some day, but it isn’t happening between now and November 8. The play on the Wilma stage downplays any drama, receives no help from Jennifer Kidwell whose Antigone barely attracts notice let alone understanding or empathy, never asks Antonis Miriagos as Creon even attempt to communicate in English, and turns its chorus into whooshing, flailing automatons, no matter how occasionally sexy or, more accurately, prurient they might be.

Earlier I said Terzopoulous’s approach was intellectual. I overpraised. It is pseudo-intellectual. All is planned solely for visual effect. It is the child that craves attention but solicits it by making a scene, positive or negative, instead of devising a way to attract or enthrall. Not one jot of Terzopoulous’s choreography illuminates “Antigone.” The chorus can cover its eyes from now to 24 more centuries. They can fold their arms in intense, staccato synchronization and bow their heads with a poignantly pronounced jerk, but it all goes for naught. Their motions are tantamount to a classical Rockettes show or a Christmas tableau in Fortnum and Mason’s window, only not nearly as thrilling as the first case or as charming as the second.

Fabric is another Terzopoulos favorite. Characters are forever draping, unraveling, disrobing, or blindfolding themselves in carefully orchestrated style. It’s refreshing to behold Antigone’s bright red wrap, but the colorful garment is one more meaningless ostentation in Terzopoulous’s vapid arsenal.

This production is a joke. Towards the end of it I wanted to laugh out loud, but the absolute quiet in the Wilma auditorium kept me from being so gauche. At one instance, mid-play, I couldn’t help two sniggers, both of which had to do with George Gershwin. In the midst of a scene, Panayotis Velianitis’s score had a familiar ring. I realized I was hearing Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Moments later, Antigone, in red, would come out and do a glorious version of the classic. In terms of performance, it might have been Jennifer Kidwell’s finest moment. She sang the tune from “Porgy and Bess” in a gorgeous a cappella that was haunting and expressive and had nothing whatsoever to do with “Antigone” and was a perplexingly inappropriate choice for this character in this play.

I’m sure, at least I hope, Terzopoulos was attempting to be witty. No cigar. The interlude was ludicrous. Kidwell can save her rendition for the concert stage, but if one was going to inculcate a modern tune into “Antigone,” it might have been a cry of independence, an expression of moral freedom, or an anthem about fraternal/sororital love. “Summertime” is none of those. It’s just more Terzopoulosian humbug. Throw out that red herring and see if someone adds onions and vinegar to make it a delicacy. Look clever or whimsical while being laughably insipid. I mentioned I thought maybe Terzopoulos was being witty. What could have given me that impression considering that for all its acknowledged choreographic invention, this production totally lacked wit?

I would love to have respect for Terzopoulos’s attempt at artistry. But I can’t. All Terzopoulos can conjure is bold effect. If he was trying to do homage to ancient modes of Greek theater and, “Summertime aside,” present a play as it might have been done at Epidaurus eons ago, he failed because he missed the two most important tenets to theater.

He didn’t communicate, and he didn’t entertain.

Worst of all, for all his production’s motions, it didn’t move.

The use of Greek throughout the show is a total sign of his disregard for whether an audience could be moved. The supertitles were a disorienting nuisance. Worse, they were written in heavy prose that did not allow for a fast read and conveyed none of the poetry and imagery so plentiful in most translations of Sophocles. Worst, all dialogue was generally delivered in a flat, unrhythmic manner that made it seem recited instead of spoken, argumentative, or heartfelt. I identified with Casca, the character in “Julius Caesar” who listens to some Greek speeches in Rome’s marketplace then tells Brutus and Cassius he can’t report the gist of what was being said because he speaks Latin and, “It was Greek to me.”

I felt more deprived of convenient comprehension, but can’t complain too bitterly because little in English moved or seemed designed to tell  Antigone’s story any more than the passages in Greek were.

I imagine this Terzopoulos “Antigone” will divide theatergoers into two distinct camps, the ones who laud it to high heaven, and the ones who agree it’s twaddle. I think it’s clear in which camp my opinion is firmly planted. “Antigone” is not performed on the Wilma stage even though a character of that name appears, and the story about her is recited with clarity by Ed Swidey who offers her tale without moving from his stage right key light. You end up watching a dance presentation with strong angular motion but no discernable theme. Storytelling is totally absent. If you are in the mood for a tragedy, you’ll be much better served by Quintessence Theatre Group’s “Romeo and Juliet.” If you’d like to see truly creative use of theater, and have a lot more fun, see Jesse Bernstein’s production of Donald Margulies’s “Shipwrecked” at the Walnut or Stephen Wadsworth’s staging of Ken Ludwig’s “A Comedy of Tenors” at McCarter.

Some praise is due individual performers who try to give some dramatic substance to Terzopoulos’s exercise in group motion. Ross Beschler and Brian Ratcliffe are both excellent as they break from the chorus to present a monologue by the seer, Teiresias, or speak from the heart as Haemon, cousin and betrothed lover to Antigone. Both actors found the note of emotion, in one case from having his wise prophecies ignored, in the other from the loss of a beloved. As mentioned, Gliko and Ratcliffe give signs of how majestic Terzopoulos’s production may have been if their level of acting and adherence to Antigone’s story had been the rule from the beginning.

The talkative, trembling actor, poised on a column upstage center, stands under the one symbol that resonates through Terzopoulos’s production, the sword of Damocles, hanging blade downward. Since this speaker also plays Teiresias, you think the sword may strike him when he says something Creon would sooner not hear.

Nope. The swords hangs in its place, always lit and always portentous, throughout “Antigone’s 80 minutes. It is ominous and disturbing in the correct way of causing tension and unease. It never actually falls. Yet I felt stabbed by Tersopoulos’s production. Oh, that the tension from that sword permeated the Wilma stage and caused enlightening, rather than gratuitous pain.

“Antigone” runs through Sunday, November 8 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sundays Oct. 18 and 25, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No evening performances are scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 4 or Thursday, Nov. 5, but 10 a.m. shows (sold out) will be given on those dates and Friday, Nov. 6. Tickets are $25 through Sunday, Nov. 1 and $45 thereafter and can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or by visiting www.wilmatheater.org.

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