How powerful is Sophocles' story of war, betrayal and familial love that his "Antigone" is reborn time and again onstage? In both its original text and in highly successful adaptations by Bertolt Brecht and Jean Anouilh, the evil legacy of the house of Oedipus rains down upon the city of Thebes in a firestorm of politics, greed and hubris as Kreon sets his armies against the neighboring Argos.
Not surprisingly, in 1948, Bertolt Brecht saw in this most political of Sophocles' plays parallels to the Germany from which he had been exiled before World War II. Translated by Judith Malina in the 1960s, Brecht's "Antigone" is often adapted to reflect the times in which it is produced.
The English Alternative Theatre production of Antigone falls directly into this tradition. In a return engagement of the play first performed at the Lawrence Arts Center last spring, EAT offers up Brecht's version of Kreon's war and loss as an ill-disguised commentary on the war in Iraq. The provocative quotation from the play - "Bring them home alive!" - featured on the program, and the setting of the Prologue in "a Middle Eastern country" leave no doubt as to the modern context in which director Paul Stephen Lim wishes us to view this ancient tragedy.
Lee Saylor's set design reflects the starkness of the world that Thebes has become, overshadowed by the great birds of prey that pick at the body of Polyneices, whom Kreon has ordered to be left for carrion as punishment for his betrayal. The set has only four large rolling step platforms that are configured by the performers to suggest the changes in place that the action requires. It is enhanced by a group four actors - dressed as soldiers wearing gauzy masks to mark them as ghosts - who are "standard bearers," moving in and out carrying large royal purple and blood red banners on which are painted images of the birds of prey that are devouring Kreon's city.
Mirroring the red and purple theme, Ione Unruh's costume design is a hodgepodge of the regal and the mundane, ancient and modern, military and civilian. The royal sisters - Antigone and Ismene - are dressed in pathetically torn and disheveled raiments reflecting the loss of their former glory. Kreon's mix of tattered purple robe, suit jacket and military fatigues mark him as a man of many ages, a leader found in many worlds.
The performances are polished in both movement and speech in this production, which was also a participating entry in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival last spring. Lim's actors demonstrate these characters' alienation from one another by rarely conversing face to face. They instead face the audience and engage in a series of monologue-like speeches, further emphasizing their loss of humanity.
This production will challenge its audience, but that always has been one of the hallmarks of theater. And "Antigone" always has offered audiences an opportunity to evaluate morality and choice. The play is adaptable because it reveals characteristics we carry through the ages: our weakness of pride and our strength of mercy.