The tagline for the Kansas University English Alternative Theatre's production of "Antigone" is "now more than ever," and it's an apt description of Sophocles' immortal tragedy. For this particular staging, EAT uses Bertolt Brecht's adaptation (originally written in response to the rise of the Third Reich), but Paul Stephen Lim has reimagined it to be set, in his words, "sometime within our own lifetime and collective memory." Consequently, the play is a haunting commentary on the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
King Kreon of Thebes (John Younger) is waging war on Argos. During the fighting, the sons of Oedipus - Eteocles and Polyneices - are both killed. Eteocles is hailed as a hero to the state and given a funeral of honor, but Polyneices is declared a traitor, and Kreon orders he not be buried or mourned. This is too much for Polyneices' sister, Antigone (Samantha Raines), who defies the king and buries him anyway. She is arrested and condemned.
Kreon miscalculates, though, and declares victory over Argos before the war is really won. When the sons of Thebes do not come home with glory and booty, social unrest follows, and Kreon becomes increasingly isolated from his advisers and the people of Thebes. Eventually, his own son Hamon (Ryan Klamen), who was betrothed to Antigone, turns against him, and Thebes descends into chaos.
Sound familiar? Lim intends it to be, and he uses the program to set up his point before the actors take the stage. In addition to the tagline (prominently displayed on the cover) and the setting, he concludes the credits with a notice that the play will be restaged in September if U.S. troops haven't left Iraq.
The production itself helps drive the point home. Younger cuts a sinister figure as the arrogant Kreon. Convinced of the rectitude of his actions, he refuses to listen to the pleas of Antigone, his court advisers and even his son. As the war and the Fates turn against him, he clings stubbornly to his policy and accuses all critics of being enemies of the state.
Chorus members are dressed in black and red avian costumes, making them look like the vultures to which Kreon leaves Eteocles' body. Ably voiced by R. Troy Hirsch, Dana Dajani and Jacob Wozniak, they begin by praising Kreon's every decree only to turn on him when the war goes sour.
The genius of the production lies in its subtlety. Lim takes great care to set up the parallels to modern U.S. foreign policy in the costuming and the program notes, but then he lets the play speak for itself. There are no recognizable insignia and no references to modern conflicts made by the actors. But when the show is finished, the audience has no doubt this is contemporary political commentary. It's no small task to recast an ancient story (even by using an adaptation written as recently as Brecht's) and make it timely. Lim and his cast do so remarkably well, and that makes "Antigone" both haunting and fresh.