Greek theater, French history, and a definition of tragedy
by Kevin Crowe
The directorâ’s notes begin with that single, irritating tic: â“Anouilhâ’s adaptation of Sophoclesâ’ Antigone was inspired by a true story.â” It is, but it also ainâ’t. French playwright Jean Anouilh had been inspired by the story of a lone Frenchman who, in the face of certain death, attacked a French organization that was sympathetic to the Nazi occupation of Paris. So, without too much adaptation, the parallels between the ancient story of Antigone and Anouilhâ’s own stance against tyranny began to write themselves, more or less. The resulting play is a quick study of Greek theatrical conventions along with some superb French existentialism.
Call it a re-imagining of Sophocles, so that contemporary and ancient theater can come together seamlessly.
The play opens with each character striking a pose, and they hold perfectly still to let the chorus set the scene. The dim glow of a blue backlight helps create a sense of inescapable melancholy. The chorus tells us that Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, is going to die. Her lover, Heamon (played by the baby-faced Patrick Bibb, whoâ’s sporting a sweet pair of Beatle boots), tries to look as regal as humanly possible. He is, after all, the son of Creon, the new king of Thebes. Creon, always the utilitarian, has just quashed a rebellion with extreme prejudice. The rebel Polynices, who happens to be Antigoneâ’s brother, is left to rot in the fields. The king, in an attempt to dismay any future rabble, decrees that anyone who attempts to bury Polynices will be executed.
The stage is set, and it only takes about 10 minutes. The chorus has done its job admirably. Two actors who are no strangers to the Universityâ’s stage, Rachel Winfrey and Ash Edwards, tackle the part of the chorus with a heightened sense of austerity, which is about as effective as it is stoically bland. But weâ’re nevertheless given a curt introduction to the drama. And then it begins, with a barefoot Antigone (played by Lauren Pennline, who steals the show by playâ’s end with her effervescent personality and headstrong idealism). â“Those who can do something should do something,â” she emotes. And even though that line feels empty and hackneyed, Pennline delivers it with a minimal sense of melodrama. No small feat.
Much of the cast is filled by sophomore actors, many of whom are still finding their voices. The overall inexperience of this production compared to, say, that of Februaryâ’s production of King Lear, is indeed large. But, because much of the pivotal action occurs after intermission, when only Creon and Antigone are on the stage for the majority of the act, the play still comes across as a stunning success. Much of Anouilhâ’s sense of realism-versus-idealism is expressed by Antigone and Creon, who match wits for more than half an hour, each playing off the other in a scene thatâ’s hard to act without relying on emotionless, watered-down memorization. These two actors take their craft to a level thatâ’s rarely found at UTâ’s Lab Theatreâ"and there have been many great student performances there over the years.
Jed Diamond, the current head of UTâ’s MFA acting program, has not only been able to attract considerable talent to Knoxville, but many green actors have consistently grown into artists under his guidance.
Diamond teaches his students the Alexander technique, which is the study of how humans move. â“Breath, voice, and impulse are all a part of the way the organism was designed to move,â” Diamond once told an MP reporter. â“Matthias Alexander, in the early to middle part of the 20th century, developed this technique. Itâ’s a core curriculum for people to move with ease, for performers to deal with the high levels of nerves and anxiety when they step in front of people, allowing them be free in front of an audience.â”
The role of Creon goes to third-year MFA candidate Adam Heffernan, who has appeared on One Tree Hill and was once artistic director of the Instant Theatre Company in Highlands, N.C. Heâ’s eloquent and well-tailored, his affectations fitting the gravitas of a man who is convinced of his own intellectual superiority.
This is, after all, a tragedy. We know exactly whatâ’s going to happen, because the chorus tells us at the very beginning. We hear the screams and cries of the actors, but itâ’s all predetermined. And itâ’s supposed to feel that way. The characters are stuck in a sequence of events that they have no control over. There is only relief once the drama comes to a close. As Rachel Winfrey declares at the beginning of the second act, â“Tragedy is restful.â” Then the chorus says in unison: â“Tragedy is kingly.â”
What: Anouilhâ’s Antigone
When: Thursday-Friday, Nov. 8-9, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 11, 2 p.m.
Where: UT Lab Theatre
How Much: $10; $5 w/ student I.D.
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