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Antigone
by Sophocles
In a New Translation by David R. Slavitt
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
October 10, 2014

Maggie Conroy Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theatre

Maggie Conroy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theatre

“What would you be willing to die for? What would you be willing to kill for?”  These questions are asked on the program cover for Upstream Theater’s new production of the classic Greek tragedy Antigone. These questions have been asked in many varied ways throughout the generations, and Upstream brings them to the stage with its simply staged, powerfully acted presentation that strikes a relevant chord in today’s world, and particularly in St. Louis.

Civil disobedience is at the forefront of this story, but it’s not the only issue dealt with. In fact, Antigone herself (Maggie Conroy) isn’t the main focus of the play. While the story begins with Antigone, the action centers mostly on Creon (Peter Mayer), the king of Thebes who issues a controversial order and has to deal with its consequences on himself and his family.  In the wake of a recent war, Creon decides to give an honorable burial to one of his nephews who defended the city, while allowing the other nephew–who fought for the other side–to be left to the elements as food for vultures.  It’s never a serious question for Creon’s niece, Antigone, that she will defy her uncle’s order and bury her brother, even though the penalty for doing so is death. She is resolute, even when her devoted sister Ismene (Wendy Renee Greenwood) refuses to join her in her efforts.  The real dilemma presented is for Creon, who is confronted with his own power-consciousness and must make a decision between revenge and mercy, pitting him against public opinion and his own son Haemon (Andrew Michael Neiman), who is engaged to Antigone. As Creon is forced to deal with tragic consequences of his own ruthlessness, the ever-present Greek chorus (Dennis Lebby, Norman McGowan, and Patrick Siler) is there to both react and comment on the situation.

This is one of those plays that a lot of people read in high school but then mostly forget.  I have to admit I was surprised at how little Antigone herself is in the story.  The play’s named after her, but she is more the catalyst for the action than the protagonist.  In fact, the earlier scenes between Conroy as Antigone and Mayer as Creon have an almost clinical sensibility to them. I was expecting more emotion, but that doesn’t come until later in this production. Conroy is excellent as the matter-of-fact Antigone. She’s not histrionic or conflicted. She knows exactly what she’s going to do, and she communicates that well.  Mayer, for his part, portrays Creon with a detached coldness at first, which makes his descent into near-madness in the second act all the more affecting.  There are also good performances from Greenwood in a dual role as Ismene and as Creon’s wife Eurydice, and Neiman as the conflicted Haemon.  Lebby, McGowan and Siler bring character and gravity to their roles as the chorus members, who are wary and sometimes fearful of Creon, and John Bratkowski is memorable in two roles–as Creon’s guard and as the blind soothsayer Teresias. Nancy Lewis makes the most of a small role as a messenger, bringing much weight and empathy to her characterization.

The overall tone of this production is simple and timeless, giving an appropriately mythical quality to the production while highlighting its immediacy.  The set, designed by Michael Heil, is minimal, emphasizing giant Greek-style paintings by James Van Well that line the back wall. The costumes, by LaLonnie Lehman, are ancient Greek influenced but also surprisingly modern, especially in Creon’s outfit, which is simple but more contemporary.  The lighting, designed by Steve Carmichael, is strikingly effective, particularly in the near pitch-dark blackouts between scenes, which highlight the increasing bleakness of the situations.

For a show that’s set in the misty past, this Antigone is striking a modern chord, even with the overall timelessness of the its atmosphere. Especially in St. Louis, where the issues of abuse of authority and reactions of civil disobedience are making news daily, this is a surprisingly relevant play. Upstream’s excellent cast and crew have brought us this play with simplicity and profound clarity.  It’s a play from yesterday, but very much for today.

Norman McGowan, Dennis Lebby Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

Norman McGowan, Dennis Lebby
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

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