Too Cool for School
When Another Antigone premiered off-Broadway in 1988, higher education's radar screen was aglow with a growing number of issues that threatened to crash an already overloaded system. With funding scarce in the post-Reagan years, deans couldn't motivate tenured professors to change their ways and, at the same time, couldn't afford to turn their backs on students' demands. Making matters more complicated, the politically charged atmosphere of the 1960s was slowly being displaced by a 1980s fog of political correctness.
Viewed through hindsight's lens, playwright (and former college professor) A.R. Gurney's work is an even more prescient look at the waves of discord that, depending on one's point of view, have either radically improved or tragically eroded the academic landscape. The ninety-minute play -- about a college student's determination to "update" Sophocles's timeless tragedy -- is being presented by Germinal Stage Denver (which mounted a production of Jean Anouilh's Antigone earlier this season). Some of the dialogue brings to mind the sort of wry humor found in a classic New Yorker cartoon, in which an astronomy professor gazes into the night sky while remarking to his colleague, "I do wonder, sometimes, what other galaxies have done about tenure." And even though a few scenes are contrived or thinly written, director Stephen R. Kramer and a strong quartet of actors breathe vibrant life into the play's nettlesome -- and ongoing -- debate.
Recent University of Northern Colorado grad Barbra Andrews does her alma mater proud by delivering a fine portrayal of student -- and sometime activist -- Judy Miller. By turns assured, graceful and passionate, the young actress captures Judy's headstrong pride starting with the first scene, when she informs her rock-ribbed professor that her nuclear-age version of Antigone -- with Jane Fonda and Ronald Reagan as her model pair of combatants -- is far different from anyone else's. Andrews also sheds some light on Gurney's underlying notion that, in life as well as in art, tragic figures are sometimes mistakenly regarded as victims, and vice versa. This idea resonates best during scenes between Judy and her nemesis, professor Henry Harper.
As the irascible academician, Ed Baierlein wavers between overbearing and servile -- mindful, on the one hand, of his responsibility to enforce time-honored standards and, on the other, of the need to attract enough students to justify his place on a budget-strapped classics faculty. Most important, Baierlein manages to show us that, as in Sophocles's original, the tragedy in Gurney's play centers on the Creon-ish Henry, who, unlike the Antigone-ish Judy, has no other choice than to accept and endure his fate. In a stalwart supporting turn, actress Carol Elliot enchants as Diana Eberhart, a waffling college dean caught between the need to uphold her position and the desire to chuck administrative idiocies in favor of the relative few that arise in the classroom. And Justin C. Lujan is likable as Judy's on-again, off-again boyfriend, David Appleton, particularly when he reveals that the free-spirited track star -- an intentionally clear-cut stereotype that Gurney exploits to middling effect -- has far more going for him than anyone initially suspects.
Best of all, the company, clad in designer Sallie Diamond's tasteful costumes, succeeds in articulating discussions about declining academic standards, the nature of free expression and the dangers of reducing any ritual -- whether religious, academic or theatrical -- to the lowest common denominator.
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