Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Antigone
Wilma Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Rebecca's review of Equivocation


Jennifer Kidwell and Cast
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
The Wilma Theater has long been associated with fostering international perspectives within the Philadelphia arts scene. Under the leadership of founding artistic director Blanka Zizka, the company recently launched the Wilma Hothouse, a resident acting company composed of local actors and members of the Attis Theatre, in Athens, Greece. Their first collaboration—a production of Sophocles' Antigone in a new translation by Marianne McDonald and directed by Attis' founder Theodoros Terzopoulos—is currently running at the company's Broad Street space. The result is a daring, often visually striking, not altogether successful evening of theater.

The story of Antigone is timeless and timely; in the right hands, it should never lose an iota of its power. After Oedipus' self-exile leaves Thebes in ruins, his sons Eteocles and Polyneices—who had endeavored to rule the city together, alternating their reigns year by year—slay each other in the fury of war. The newly ascended King Creon decrees that Polyneices, as a traitor, is not to be buried; the dead ruler's sister Antigone takes it upon herself to see that her brother is properly honored.

Throughout the history of theater, this text has been explored through the lenses of family, devotion, and love. It has also leant itself to the exploration of interactions between citizens and the state, such as Bertolt Brecht's adaptation which placed the play in the context of Nazi Germany, and as the inspiration for Athol Fugard's The Island, in which it served as a metaphor for South Africa under Apartheid. Terzopoulos' production attempts to place Antigone in the context of contemporary U.S. violence, to varying degrees of success.

The role of Antigone is played by Jennifer Kidwell, a black American actress with a somewhat fluid gender presentation. Creon is played by the Greek actor Antonis Miriagos. For the most part, they both converse exclusively in their native languages; translations are projected above the stage. The concept at work here is successful in highlighting the lack of understanding between the two; no matter how passionately they state their convictions, they are essentially doing so inside a vacuum. At the same time, the gesture is somewhat heavy-handed—particularly on the part of Miriagos, who looks and acts like Al Pacino at his most manic.

Kidwell's Antigone is a clear-eyed, dignified presence, and her physical performance is stunning. When not performing intricate choreography (also created by Terzopoulos), she declaims Antigone's heroic rationale for disobeying Creon and ensuring certain death with white-hot fury. It's a shame, then, that as she is about to be taken to her tomb, the director's decided to interpolate "Summertime," from Porgy and Bess, for her to sing. Though Kidwell performs it beautifully, it adds nothing to moment—in fact, it lethally dissipates the tension built into that moment, by being almost laughable.

Extending the link between the ancient world and America, the chorus—led by Paolo Musio, who also communicates exclusively in Greek—intersperses the names of victims of racial violence into its lament for the dead of Thebes. The names are familiar—Michael, Freddie, Sandra—yet if some of Terzopoulos' other choices feel too overpowering, this one ends up almost too subtle. It appeared to fly over the heads of the majority of audience members at the performance I attended. (Further, if one of the production's goals is to highlight the tolls racism has taken on the discourse of daily life in the U.S., it's worth questioning why the large cast only features two people of color).

Ed Swidey is appropriately dispassionate as the Narrator; Steven Rishard does well as the Messenger, another classic trope of Greek drama. Brian Ratcliffe makes little impression as Haemon, Creon's son and Antigone's betrothed. Sarah Gliko, an impressive Ophelia in last season's Hamlet at the Wilma, seems lost in the dual roles of Ismene (Antigone's sister) and Eurydice (Creon's wife), shouting her lines between sharp intakes of breath. I couldn't help thinking of Aunt Gert from Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, saying half of her sentence then sucking the rest back in. I doubt that was the intent of the actor or the director.

Lighting, movement, and music largely take the place of sets. Watching the chorus maraud as one can feel thrilling; some of Terzopoulos' other choices look like an "SCTV" parody of theater taking itself far too seriously. This production will not be for everyone. I noted a fair amount of walk-outs at the production I attended, and a fair number of audience members enthusiastically standing and applauding at the curtain call. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle, admiring many of the artistic risks while leaving fairly unsatisfied. All the same, the Wilma should be heralded for continuing to take artistic risks.

Antigone continues at the Wilma Theater through Sunday, November 8, 2015. Tickets can be purchased at the box office (265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia), over the phone (215-546-7824), or online at www.wilmatheater.org. Thanks to the Wilma WynTix initiative, all tickets for the first four weeks of the run are $25 ($10 for students and theater artists with a valid ID).

Cast:
Teiresias and Chorus: Ross Beschler
Ismene and Eurydice: Sarah Gliko
Teiresias and Chorus: Stathis Grapsas
Chorus: Justin Jain
Antigone: Jennifer Kidwell
Creon: Antonis Miriagos
Leader of Chorus: Paolo Musio
Guard and Chorus: Jered McLenigan
Haemon: Brian Ratcliffe
Messenger and Chorus: Steven Rishard
Narrator: Ed Swidey

Designers:
Translation: Marianne McDonald
Adaptation, Stage Design, Costume Design, Lighting Design, and Choreography: Theodoros Terzopoulos
Assistant Director and Training Coach: Savvas Stroumpos
Composer: Panayiotis Velianitis
Dramaturg: Walter Bilderback


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