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A CurtainUp Review
Antigone Project by Elyse Sommer
Now the Women's Project, dedicated to the works of women playwrights, has commissioned five writers to put their own spin on Sophocles Antigone. Antigone, as you may recall is the gutsy title character who risks her own death in order to bury her brother even though the dictator Creon had declared him a traitor whose body should be left to rot. As a quick click to some of the links at the end of this review will make plain, this is not the first attempt to reinterpret this mythical heroine's story. It is, however, the first time that I can recall seeing five variations mounted on one stage, each one lasting for just ten to fifteen minutes.
I went to see this group project intrigued by the mix of playwrights artistic director Loretta Greco assigned to this separate yet joint task. Would five Antigones be too much of a good thing? Could each play really differentiate itself and yet work within the overall "project" tag and move from one playlet to the next without too many cumbersome set changes? Could five different directors give the plays in their charge a unique vision without losing their hold on the connecting thread?
The good news is that what we get is five plays whose only link, the source material, is so completely turned on its head that there's no repetition other than that each play features an Antigone. Karen Hartman, Caridad Svich and Lynn Nottage have moved the story to the present, though in vastly different settings. Tanya Barfield has renamed her heroine Antoinette Thebes and used a 1918 time frame, while Chiori Miyagawa has given the myth a surreal twist by following Antigone to the Underworld.
The plays are inhabited by an excellent core ensemble, with Angel Desai playing Antigone twice and Jeannie Serralles segueing from sister Ismene in the opening piece to the title character in the third. The actors' appearance in more than one play and Rachel Hauk's set, which handily accommodates the changes in time and place, abet the directors in individualizing their assignments and also working as a cohesive unit.
Deconstructing a classic invariably bumps up against the problem of seeming to try too hard to be trendy and different. Caridad Svich's Antigone Arkhe is a case in point. It cleverly uses an archivist-lecturer (Joey Collins) in an Antigone museum to reconstruct the story from statues (the Antigone statue animated by Jeanne Serrales). However, while the extensive use of projections makes this the most elaborately staged effort, it ends up going on too long and is somewhat too reminiscent of a similar twist used to frame the musical Aida (see review).
The ten to fifteen-minute format also runs the risk of producing plays that never shake off the sense of being sketches waiting to be turned into plays. Something of a case in point here is Karen Hartman's Hang Ten in which Antigone (Desai) and her sister (Serrales) are recast as bathing beauties discussing their tragic family history while eyeing a hunk-y surfer (DeSean Terry). This piece does have a pungent O.Henry twist which I won't give away here.
The two most straightforward plays, Tanya Barfield's Medallion and Lyn Nottage's A Stone's Throw are also the most moving and satisfying. Barfield's Antigone or Antoinette Thebes (April Yvette Thompson) ) is a World War I soldier's sister who poignantly demands to be given the purple heart medal that is her fallen brother's due. The white general (Joey Collins) she confronts personifies the Zeitgeist of an army that has shamefully denied recognition to brave Americans like Antoinette's brother. Nottage's A Stone's Throw is a lovely, moving story about a woman (Tracie Thoms) in a modern African community whose backward social mores doom her attraction to a chivalrous young man (DeSean Terry). The present to past storytelling helps this to overcome the Project's tendency to come off as a playwriting exercise.
This is the first in the Women's Project (bravo, for shortening their name) 2004-05 season. It will be followed by a new musical, by Deidre Murray and Randy Weiner, Best of Both Worlds co-produced with Music-Theatre Group and conclude with an as yet to be named world premiere directed by artistic director Loretta Greco.
Antigone from NAATCO
Antigone at CSC
Antigone Through Time at FringeNYC
The Phoenician Women