Two Against Thebes: Contrasting Visions of Sophocles in ‘Antigone,’ ‘Xtigone’

Spirits (Jasmine Strange, Brooklyn Fields and Tavia Percia) bring the ancestors to solve the city conflict in African-American Shakespeare Company’s Xtigone. (Photo: Lance Huntley)

Antigone is the tale of a young woman who stands up against an unjust government. Right now, however, she does not stand alone. Two different San Francisco theaters are premiering new adaptations of Sophocles’ tragedy—the Cutting Ball Theater’s Antigone and African-American Shakespeare Company’s Xtigone —and a third joins them in March, at Shotgun Players. This wasn’t a coordinated effort; all three projects had been in the works for years. But the convergence represents a rare opportunity for local audiences to see three different, provocative takes on the same story, and it’s well worth taking advantage of that chance.

Antigone is one of Sophocles’ three surviving Theban plays—the first of them that he wrote and the last in chronological order of the events depicted. The other two are Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, both about Antigone’s father (who was also, famously, her brother). Written around 441 BCE, Antigone takes place after Oedipus’ death. His two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, have killed each other in a civil war. Kreon, the new king (brother of Oedipus’ wife/mother, Jocasta), decrees that Eteocles shall be buried with honor as a defender of the city, while Polyneices must be left out to rot as a traitor. Any attempt to bury the body will be a capital offense. Antigone refuses to let her brother suffer such an unnatural fate and buries the body in defiance of her uncle, making herself an enemy of the state.

The chorus (l-r, Paul Loper, Madeline H.D. Brown, Wiley Naman Strasser, Jason W. Wong) regards Kreon’s edict in Cutting Ball Theater’s Antigone. (Photo: Chase Ramsey)
The chorus (l-r, Paul Loper, Madeline H.D. Brown, Wiley Naman Strasser, Jason W. Wong) regards Kreon’s edict in Cutting Ball Theater’s Antigone. (Photo: Chase Ramsey)

Interestingly, it’s the company devoted to works of the avant-garde, the Cutting Ball Theater, that has the most traditional take on the material. That’s because Cutting Ball’s Antigone is a new translation, by Daniel Sullivan, rather than an adaptation per se. The language is formal and densely poetic, sometimes deliberately archaic and sometimes modern and slangy for blunt impact or comedic effect, with many delightful turns of phrase.

An intense performance style and dancerly movement make associate artistic director Paige Rogers’ staging of this Antigone feel like a bold interpretation. The piece has been unusually long in the making; the cast and creative team went to Poland last summer for two weeks at the Grotowski Institute, where they worked with members of Teatr Zar  on movement and polyphonic singing.

That training shows. The eight actors function as a unit, often speaking or singing in unison and deftly executing synchronized movements, much of it abstract or related to the action of the play in only a vague, intuitive way.

The chorus (l-r, Paul Loper, Hannah Donovan, Madeline H.D. Brown, Wiley Naman Strasser, Emma Crane Jaster, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Tim Green) regards Kreon’s edict in Cutting Ball Theater’s Antigone. (Photo: Chase Ramsey)
The chorus (l-r, Paul Loper, Hannah Donovan, Madeline H.D. Brown, Wiley Naman Strasser, Emma Crane Jaster, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Tim Green) regards Kreon’s edict in Cutting Ball Theater’s Antigone. (Photo: Chase Ramsey)

An intimate dance of pushing and batting playfully at each other is repeated several times by close relations who find themselves in conflict. We see this sequence first projected on the floor as we arrive, in Chase Ramsey’s silent video of Eteocles and Polyneices (Daniel Larlham and Anthony Nikolchev, who are not among the live cast) horsing around in happier times. We next see it as sister Ismene (a placid Hannah Donovan) tries to convince Antigone (Madeline H.D. Brown, compellingly stoic and determined) not to defy the king. Then Wiley Naman Strasser’s devoted and tactful Haemon, Kreon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, does this dance one last time with his stubbornly proud father (a quick-tempered Jason W. Wong). Other bits are harder to fathom, such as the cast pretending to be typing while Elissa Beth Stebbins’ dynamic chorus leader muses on the nature of suffering.

All dressed by Wong in different combinations of black and dark blue, the whole cast functions as the Greek chorus, Antigone and Kreon falling into the communal mass as readily as everyone else. This approach has the effect of making the action feel less like something that is happening now than like a story that is being retold as a kind of ritual, and everyone has a part to play. Sometimes it’s a small but important part, such as Tom Green’s somber soldier reporting tragic deaths, and sometimes it’s several parts. Emma Crane Jaster transforms into a hilariously hemming and hawing sentry who has to break the news to Kreon that his law has been broken, but she also becomes a quietly grieving mother and the energetic young boy who leads the blind prophet Tiresias (Paul Loper).

Everyone sings in beautiful harmony in styles that range from Armenian and Georgian folk songs to a barbershop version of a song from the musical Finian’s Rainbow. The songs rarely seem to have any direct relation to the events of the play except to set a mood, functioning much like the eerie sustained drone in Cliff Caruthers’ sound design. For all its puzzling moments and the distancing effect of the highly stylized approach, it’s a lovely piece of theater that breathes new life into a classic.

Tigs (Ryan Nicole Peters) defies Mayor Marcellus’ law by unearthing the truth of the city’s gun violence in African-American Shakespeare Company’s Xtigone. (Photo: Lance Huntley)
Tigs (Ryan Nicole Austin) defies Mayor Marcellus’ law by unearthing the truth of the city’s gun violence in African-American Shakespeare Company’s Xtigone. (Photo: Lance Huntley)

Nambi E. Kelley’s Xtigone is a passionate indictment of inner-city gun violence, but it’s much more than a topical update of an ancient text. The show radically reverses the original story. Brothers E-Mem and Ernesto are rival Chicago gang leaders, shot dead in a drive-by while negotiating a truce. Mayor Marcellus then insists that both brothers be buried so the community can heal and move on. But the boys’ sister, Tigs, insists that one brother be left unburied—not to desecrate the body but because she equates burying him with burying the truth.

Furiously portrayed by Ryan Nicole Austin, Tigs is also the one who names one brother as the good one and one as the bad one. The brother she lionizes, E-Mem, is the one she wants left out in the open.We’re told over and over again that  E-Mem was righteous, but it’s unclear what was so virtuous about him. Both brothers are portrayed as the leaders of street gangs in a shooting war with each other. The two brothers keep hanging around as ghosts after their deaths, and AeJay Mitchell’s E-Mem is always scowling contemptuously at everyone, while Drew Watkins’ supposedly sinister Ernesto just seems amiably befuddled.

The one thing E-Mem seems to have going for him is that he was a thorn in the mayor’s side. Dwight Dean Mahabir’s Marcellus seems to be both sincere in his concern for the city’s children and also an opportunistic politician campaigning for governor. We see him pander shamelessly and amusingly in a rabble-rousing rap. He’s also supposedly trying to do something to combat the gun violence in his city. But the question E-Mem and Tigs keep asking is, where do the guns come from? People talk about it like these kids are just doing this to themselves (a view expressed in song by a listless Jasmine Strange as Marcellus’ scheming wife), but who profits from it?

Spirit (Awele Makeba) recognizes the symbolization of shoes as the dead in African-American Shakespeare Company’s Xtigone. (Photo: Lance Huntley)
Spirit (Awele Makeba) recognizes the symbolization of shoes as the dead in African-American Shakespeare Company’s Xtigone. (Photo: Lance Huntley)

The script is packed thick with dazzling lyrical passages such as “I am the Amazons of the Dahomey, Jamaica’s Nyabinghi, the queen called Nefertiti, Coretta, Rihanna and Mama Obama’s legacy. And if I stand still, I’m also Mamie Till.” Director Rhodessa Jones brings the rich musicality of Kelley’s dialogue to life beautifully in her staging. The production is full of passionate, propulsive music composed by Tommy “Emcee Soulati” Shepherd. Naima Shalhoub does some particularly soulful singing as Tea Flake, Marcellus’s hype woman, although at first it’s hard to decipher the lyrics. Awele Makeba is riveting as a woman in white who dances around with a shaker and broom as a kind of gatekeeper to the land of the dead, and she doubles as the prophetic old blind woman who gives Marcellus a much needed talking-to.

Tavia Percia is delightfully cheeky as Izzy, Tigs’ sister, who says there’s no point in sticking their necks out because they’re “just broke, just black, just bereft.” Michael Wayne Turner gives a powerful performance as Tigs’ beau, conveniently named Beau, who goes from happily goofy lover to furious rebel. Howard Johnson has a very funny scene as the reluctant messenger, playing within the old archetype of the comical cowardly servant.

The whole production is wonderfully dynamic and compelling, but for all the speechifying that Tigs and E-Mem do, there’s still a lot that’s confusing about their cause. The idea of unburying the dead is potent as a metaphor but harder to get behind when taken literally, so it’s probably for the best that the bodies are represented by piles of shoes in Jones’ dynamic staging. It’s hard to see Marcellus’s “new law” as unjust, though,  when all he’s saying is that people shouldn’t  leave bodies in the street. Kreon’s decree in the original story seems unjust precisely because it seems so unnatural, and thus Tigs seems pretty extreme here. Yet we’re told in no uncertain terms that she’s right. Mamie Till is cited as a historical precedent, having helped spark the civil rights movement with her insistence on an open-casket funeral for her brutally murdered son, Emmett Till, so everyone could see how mutilated the 14-year-old had been.

Still, maybe it’s a good thing for Tigs to make us uncomfortable. Asking for a  lone rebel against the system that we can all get behind without question may be too much. Things in real life are messy, so it may be churlish to ask that our myths and teaching stories be tidy, especially the modern versions.

Antigone runs through March 29, 2015 at the Exit on Taylor in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit cuttingball.com.

Xtigone runs through March 8, 2015 at the African-American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit african-americanshakes.org.

Two Against Thebes: Contrasting Visions of Sophocles in ‘Antigone,’ ‘Xtigone’ 26 February,2015Sam Hurwitt

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Sam Hurwitt

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theater critic for KQED Arts, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Jose Mercury News in addition to his own theater and culture blog, The Idiolect.  You can find him on Twitter cleverly camouflaged as shurwitt.

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