When I was a theatre student, I was fascinated by stories of the Greek tragedies in their earliest performances – multi-day outdoor festivals, attended by tens of thousands, for whom the event was as much ritual as drama.
What must that be like, I wondered? The few Greek plays I had seen were… well, plays, and fairly dry ones. Audiences applauded politely – but after the final curtain, they were mostly talking about where to go for a post-show nightcap. Would I ever experience a Greek tragedy with the visceral, even sacred, power they once had?
I have now. The Wilma’s hypnotic, altogether extraordinary Antigone has many virtues, but most of all this – it presents a play about loss and memorialization in a way that is both timeless and timely, deeply connected to spiritual beliefs and also politics, and riveting from start to finish.
This is all the more impressive because in many ways, the Wilma’s production – brilliantly directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos of the Attis Theatre, who is himself Greek – is nothing like what we know of the festivals. We’re seated in a comfortable, intimate, indoor theatre. The show runs a tidy 90 minutes without intermission. And the aesthetics are more rooted in a Modernist, even Expressionist style (I thought often of the drawings of Egon Schiele.)
The power of those images is overwhelming. You will see nothing more visually arresting this season than what Terzopoulos and company do with bodies in space, on a simply dressed stage but painted with light. The storytelling is clear and vivid, much of it provided by a narrator – the mesmerizing Ed Swidey. In brief, Antigone is the daughter of King Creon; she risks his wrath attempting to give her brother, Polynices – who in the Theban civil war had become his father’s enemy – a proper burial.
It’s an ancient tale, but in Marianne McDonald’s adaptation of Sophocles, Antigone includes subtle but unmistakable allusions to contemporary violence.
As performed here, it’s also in a mixture of Greek and English – mostly the latter, but Creon speaks only Greek, and Antigone only English, which becomes a brilliant metaphor for non-communication, and also enlarges the scope of the play. An immensely clever device in the production (I won’t spoil it here) makes us understand that we’re meant to connect Antigone – in a white-hot performance by Jennifer Kidwell – to modern America. Creon – superbly played by Attis Theatre-member Antonis Miriagos – is, on the other hand, is from a distant world, out of our range of experience.
I’ve always admired the Wilma Theater’s commitment to bringing an international perspective to Philadelphia theatre, and to challenging audiences with intellectually rigorous, sometimes difficult, material. Those goals are superbly realized here, in a production that every theatre-lover should see – and no one will soon forget.
Antigone, Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, 215.546.7824, www.wilmatheater.org. Performances through November 8.