Tragedy for the Ages

Antigone sets the heart free.

Antigone's two brothers, both sons of Oedipus, have died in each other's arms while fighting for future control of their uncle Creon's throne. In order to send a message to future revolutionaries, King Creon has decreed that one of the slain will be left to rot outside the walls of Thebes while the other receives a state funeral. Determined to right that grievous wrong, the leading character in Jean Anouilh's Antigone decides to obey the dictates of her conscience instead of the law of the land.

First produced in Paris in 1943, at the height of the Nazi occupation of Anouilh's native France, the updated version of this Greek classic spoke powerfully to issues swirling about France's Vichy (read: puppet) government. Nazi sympathizers identified with the pragmatic, empire-building Creon, while Resistance followers viewed Antigone as a national heroine who refused, on pain of death, to be silenced by tyranny.

The timeless and expertly crafted drama is solidly presented by Germinal Stage Denver. And while a few scenes tilt uncomfortably toward melodrama rather than tragedy, director Ed Baierlein's austere production says more about freedom of expression and spiritual independence than today's media feeding frenzies and placard-waving protests.

C. Kelly Leo and Ed Baierlein in Antigone.
C. Kelly Leo and Ed Baierlein in Antigone.

At the heart of the play lies an Act II confrontation between Creon (Baierlein) and Antigone (C. Kelly Leo), generally regarded as one of the greatest scenes ever written for the modern stage. Instead of beating the audience over the head with a dominant point of view, Anouilh gives each argument a thorough, multifaceted airing. As is the case with all Greek dramas, we learn that both sides are justified in believing as they do; gradually, though, one emerges as being more right. As performed on a plain, symmetrical setting of gray and black platforms, steps and pillars (the set was designed by Baierlein), the scene careens toward capitulation and compromise, only to pitch headlong into a sea of fatalism.

"Nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make the law," Creon says to his wayward niece. "What a person can do, a person must do," Antigone answers. "You come from people for whom the human vestment is a kind of straitjacket," observes Creon. "All that you can do is have me killed," Antigone replies. Someone had to agree to captain the ship of state when it was on the verge of capsizing, argues Creon. True enough, says Antigone, but the captain's authority to steer the ship doesn't automatically give him dominion over what his sailors think and believe. It's a twenty-minute seesaw debate that makes the drama's moral questions crystal clear and yet even more difficult to answer. The following scene, in which Leo and a prison guard while away Antigone's final hours, is tinged with elements that eerily suggest the Holocaust.

Less successful are some of the early episodes that are meant to provide a slow buildup to Creon and Antigone's fateful meeting. The basic problem can be traced to the tone that Leo takes from the beginning of the play: Rather than show us a woman possessed by a destiny she cannot fully comprehend yet somehow accepts, the talented actress prematurely pushes her portrait into the realm of madness -- an approach that makes Antigone's prescient observations sound more like Cassandra's hysterical ranting. As a result, Antigone initially appears to be a wacko bent on carrying out some sort of doomsday death wish, instead of a privileged princess driven by near-divine compulsion to do the right thing.

Elsewhere, however, Leo makes a fine heroine, especially when she strides to the stage's topmost platform and taunts Creon with "Paint me the picture of your happy little Antigone." At that moment, Leo's portrayal radiates with the kind of spiritual emancipation that transcends rational argument. As Creon, Baierlein carefully maneuvers through a role that could easily be reduced to fits of swaggering bombast. When he gazes at his niece and recalls the years during which, like her, he was "full of thoughts of self-sacrifice," Baierlein strikes an effective emotional chord. It's as though he's deeply involved in Creon's struggle while at the same time observing it from afar.

The strong supporting cast is led by Step Pearce's adept turn as Creon's disillusioned son (and Antigone's tormented fiancé), Haemon. Jamie Powers is appealing as Antigone's too-sensible sister, Ismene. Michael Eberle hits most of the right notes as Antigone's prison guard, a man who's described as having "a wife that he's afraid of and kids that are afraid of him." Sharon Khan-Khan gets all of the Nurse's flightiness, if not her tact and sagacity. And Petra Ulrych both entertains and instructs as the Chorus, a solitary figure (which is Elizabethan, as opposed to Greek, in concept) who explains various plot developments while moving and speaking in highly stylized ways; at times she's more distant than the raconteur-like go-between the character seems intended to be, but the choice to make her something of an abstraction proves equally valid.

Baierlein and company's well-staged debate doesn't always reverberate to the proverbial hills, but it's eminently more resounding than the bile-filled screeds of screen hacks turned play scribblers that are so common today. Indeed, Anouilh's gripping retelling of the tale, much like his later drama (and film), Becket, reminds you of a time when poets who knew how to entertain ruled the theater by humbling themselves before its ancient majesties.

 
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