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Well, we’ve never been a particularly…affectionate family,” muses Creon (Nigel Reed) about midway through Forum’s production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. Creon’s indulging in a healthy bit of understatement there, because the kinfolk to whom he refers are the royal family of Thebes. Yes, that royal family of Thebes—as the play begins, Creon’s nephew Oedipus has recently given himself a complex by boffing his mom, offing his dad, and fleeing town in a blind panic. The ensuing war between Oedipus’ two sons for the throne has ended in their bloody deaths. And even now that Creon is safely ensconced as King of Thebes, the bodies aren’t quite done piling up; by the end of the evening there’ll be three more corpses for the family plot.
Chief among Creon’s king-sized headaches is Oedipus’ daughter Antigone (Katie Atkinson). She’s got this bee in her bonnet about burying her brother’s corpse, which—per Creon’s command—still lies rotting in the center of town as a public warning to any who would rise against Thebes. The girl knows that if she goes through with interring the body, Creon will have no choice but to put her to death, but still she persists. Kids these days, I tell you.
The Antigone imagined by Sophocles was a woman driven by duty—to her brother and (mostly) to the gods, who tended to be real sticklers about all things funereal. But when Anouilh crafted this modern retelling, he set out to strip the tragic heroine of her classical motivations. This Antigone doesn’t believe in the gods and feels no particular sense of duty to anyone or anything. Instead it’s Creon, who has only reluctantly assumed the blood-spattered throne, as the one acting out of a crushing sense of duty to restore order to his city. That’s a neat inversion, but the playwright didn’t stop there. Over the course of the lengthy and often heated dialogue between a world-weary Creon and an obdurate Antigone, which forms the crux of the play, Anouilh takes great pains to expose each of the girl’s convictions as naive, illogical, or just plain wrong.
And yet his Antigone persists. She fiercely rejects Creon, who insists that it’s possible to take pleasure in small, everyday things, and instead readies herself to face death. In the end, she is herself: She wants what she wants, and she’s prepared to die for it.
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That’s the crucial tension at the heart of the play, and there’s as many ways to interpret it as there are groups to claim it. Certainly when it was first staged in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944, many saw in Creon a damning portrait of Vichy fecklessness. Meanwhile, those among the armband-sporting set could take comfort in viewing Anouilh’s Antigone as a symbol of the Resistance—stubborn, foolish, and doomed.
Forum’s production eventually achieves the gratifyingly ambiguous tension that Anouilh’s play demands, though it does take a while to register. The opening scenes lack vigor and drive, and not because the Chorus (a warmly wry Fiona Blackshaw) has already told us the ending. What’s weighing those early scenes down, besides all the exposition and foreshadowing, is the fact that Antigone is, well, kind of a tiresome goth drama queen.
When we meet her, she hasn’t just embraced the idea of her own death, she’s humped it six ways to Sunday. She moons around the stage, darkly intimating her eventual fate to anyone who’ll listen, turning her pained gaze hither and yon. That Atkinson attacks these scenes with the deadly seriousness she does is only fitting; Antigone must seem convinced of her own doomed nobility, after all, and Atkinson certainly sells that. But you can’t help thinking an opportunity for nuance has been missed, here. Tragedy or no, there’s just something humorous about a character this self-serious, and when Antigone shrilly threatens to defenestrate herself if her fiancé asks her any questions, or when she wheedles a promise out of her nurse to look after her dog, you wish the production would at least acknowledge it.
The pace, and the tension, of Forum’s staging pick up quite a bit once Reed’s Creon comes onstage. Reed projects an intelligent, wintry self-awareness that neatly intersects Atkinson’s youthful heedlessness and pride. He is smooth and politic where she is spiky and overt, and over the course of the evening you’ll find your sympathies shifting back and forth. Which is as it should be, because at the heart of it all, beneath the evocative and frequently lovely language that both actors declaim, Antigone is a battle of wills: the moral imperative vs. the logical one, what is right vs. what is best.
If the strength of Reed’s performance causes you to spend more time in Creon’s camp than in Antigone’s, well, that’s the idea. Creon is determined not to let Antigone cast him as the villain of the piece (in fact, he says as much in one of the play’s more meta passages). In his deft and charismatic turn, Reed utterly nails our endless capacity to make the easier choice, then immediately convince ourselves it was really the harder one.
The thing that makes tragedy so calming, the Chorus explains to us, is that it doesn’t leave room for hope, “and there’s nothing more unsettling than hope, is there?” A cheery bit of fatalism indeed, but director Michael Dove sets out to prove her right. Even as tempers flare and characters start to hurtle toward their fates with increasing speed, Dove’s staging never grows dark or claustrophobic. If anything, the tone gets airier and more peaceful as we come to the end, as if the play itself has grown resigned to its fate. Dove gets a lot of help creating this sense of openness from his design team: Jon Boags and Carleen Troy’s simple but stately set evokes classical architecture, while Paul Frydrychowski’s lighting slants across the stage to make the empty spaces between each pillar seem to stretch even wider.
Compared to other Forum productions, which tend to feature a disparate array of multimedia elements, Antigone is stripped-down, even austere. But its an austerity thats well-suited to the particular demands of this flinty, intelligent play, and Forum pulls it off with a clear-eyed rigor thats impressive and welcome.