Theatre Journal 55.3 (2003) 513-514
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Antigone. By Mac Wellman. Dance Theater Workshop, New York City. 15 December 2002.
The theatre and its dramatists returned to the Antigone story at several times of crisis during the twentieth century. Hasenclever in 1917, Anouilh in 1944, Brecht in 1948, and Fugard in 1973, to cite a few, all used the archetypal clash of private conscience and civic imperative to absorb and magnify particular conflicts of their times. Mac Wellman's Antigone continues this tradition in the twenty-first century.
In these days of embedded journalists and twenty-four hour commentary, it becomes ever more difficult to think outside the received structure and emotions of the debate. Wellman is not interested in updating or creating yet another interpretation of the Antigone story; rather he oscillates between the play's past and its future. Wellman's play lives simultaneously in two far-flung moments: an archaic era before the dawn of the House of Laius and a time that feels like it's dangerously just around the corner. Caught in this time-warp, he asks some fundamental questions about our state of being, beyond politics or religion, just as his Tiresias goads Creon: "Okay. Eteocles, hero. Polyneices, traitor. That's simple enough. The news is what has been forgotten. The mystery. The absolute. The uncanny."
Wellman's Antigone, commissioned for Big Dance Theater by the Classic Stage Company, gets at the uncanny not by telling a familiar story but by jarring our perceptions through the language of [End Page 513] theatre. Wellman has used a minimal amount of Sophocles text, retaining its basic DNA, as it were, to create a text that is dense, elliptical, and disarmingly funny. He deconstructs text and notions of theatre by allowing dialogue, scenario, and stage directions to flow together—voices are disembodied while character, activity, and thought are playfully invented.
A radio show from an outpost in Uzbekistan frames the play. Leroy Logan masterfully plays a cosmic whacked-out DJ/stage manager, who is enthroned at a table festooned with sound gear and an odd collection of bright red props and musical instruments. Four female performers play all the other roles, including the Three Facts (the Three Fates), who become the Three Graces—avatars of more tragic characters. Played by Molly Hickok, Didi O'Connell, Rebecca Wisocky, and Tricia Brouk, they serve as a comic sorority constantly sustaining the premise of the play with youthful exuberance expressed in dance, movement, song, and dialogue. While Logan's appearance—a kind of elegantly robed Santa Claus—speaks of benevolence and authority, his amplified voice casts a falsetto onto one of the women to create a sonic image that conflates symbolic logic with terror—a force that Wellman has named "!." Wearing a black veil, and prone to deep backbends, the "Shriek Operator" or "E-Shriek" is a destructive deity that "lies outside language and therefore cannot be understood."
Big Dance Theater has become known over the past decade for its fusion of movement, song, choreography, and text into pieces that have vividly re-imagined a range of literary works from Flaubert to Twain, Tzara to Von Horvath, and Tanizaki to Fassbinder. Annie-B Parson (choreographer and co-director) and Paul Lazar (director) have, in collaboration with their performers, created a performing style through which singing, dancing, moving, and playing are the only ways of knowing in a universe that is "fundamentally broken." Early on and with child-like abandon, the women pounce upon a pile of clothes that turn out to be military in origin. The tone darkens as the body of Polynices appears in the formation of the clothes and a helmet. Then sand begins to fall from above and Sophocles' image of burial merges with more recent references in our minds. This poignant sequence is not played for emotion but rather deliberately undercut as one of the performers cheerfully vacuum the area with a bright red Dustbuster.
Songs and dances with enigmatic titles like "Dance of Charm and Distance" and "Dance of Error and Disclosure" counterpoint Wellman's text. Joanne Howard's set captures this...