SARASOTA – For the final production of its 2013/14 season, the FSU Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training takes on Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of the Sophocles classic Antigone. An ambitious production to say the least, the play nonetheless gives the student actors ample opportunity to show off their thematic chops.
Antigone is the third part of Sophocles' Theban trilogy that begins with the famous Oedipus the King. Oedipus, the tragic Greek hero who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, is already dead and gone by the opening of the play. Antigone is one of two daughters born of Oedipus' union with his mother, Queen Jocasta.
Andrea Adnoff and Brian Owen
photo by Frank Atura
After King Oedipus' death, his sons Eteocles and Polynices were to reign over the city of Thebes in turn. However, Eteocles did not want to share power, and Polynices ended up leaving the city to set up an army of his own. In the ensuing battle, both are killed. Their Uncle Creon is asked to rule and declares that as punishment for turning against Thebes, Polynices's body must be left above ground to rot for 30 days, while only Eteocles receives a proper burial and religious rights.
At the opening of the play, Antigone defies the order and though King Creon, whose son Haemon is set to marry her, attempts endlessly to cover up her defiance and spare her punishment, Antigone is resolute, even after she is dispossessed of her illusions regarding the events at hand. When she's sentenced to death by entombment, Creon resists his son's pleas for her mercy, leading to further tragedy when his son secretly joins her in the cave prior to it being closed with stones.
While Anouilh's World War II adaptation was indeed bold and revolutionary – it was first performed in Paris in 1944, during the Nazi occupation – lacking such a backdrop, it's quite difficult to manage the same effect today. While using the Sophocles classic to depict Antigone's rejection of authority against Creon's acceptance of it was a daring statement while the city was ruled by the Third Reich, in this production, it's much harder to root for the daughter of Oedipus who seems mostly petulant, while fighting endlessly to hold on to the ignorance of youth, eager to die for a cause she struggles to even define let alone convincingly argue for.
At times, I found it difficult not to imagine a less-villainous Dick Cheney tongue lashing one of the Bush daughters who comes from a semester of Ivy League education with a changed world view and desire to enlist and serve in Iraq.
This dynamic seems to be abetted by the casting, which in a 10-character play is obviously quite difficult to nail down, especially while many students are currently performing in Asolo Rep productions. Brian Owen, who turned in two notable performances this season in School for Lies and Loot, proves himself to be the cream of the Conservatory crop in a brilliant turn as Creon. Owen's remarkable stage presence allows him to endow the king with tremendous gravity, and he becomes the character we best understand and relate to, which is surely not the intent of the tale.
In King Creon we see the prototypical reluctant dictator, a man whose experiences have understandably shaken his faith in the ability of the masses to govern themselves absent of a strong hand banging the collective table when needed. He undoubtedly believes that his force is truly necessary; the lesser of evils and he seems to take no pleasure in dispensing it (which is where the Cheney comparison seems to end). Creon clearly values the simple pleasures in life – a child's laughter at your feet – and wishes to implore those around him toward the happiness that he sees himself being denied by inescapable responsibilities he did not seek, but could not refuse. His slavish devotion to duty ultimately costs him everything that is dear, though he marches toward his demise equally willing to dole out misery on his own doorstep as that of others.
Andrea Adnoff and Gracie Lee Brown
Andrea Adnoff, who has proven herself quite capable in other roles, especially those requiring more nuanced and subtle performances, often seems miscast as the rebellious daughter of Oedipus, though she manages several affecting moments, especially at the point where she seems to break under her Uncle's verbal whip.
Allie Henkel manages to deliver a very memorable performance, despite a rather small role as Antigone's nurse, and it would have been very interesting to see her in the title role, based on her impressive performance in the Conservatory's last production, How I Learned to Drive.
Olivia Williamson does a wonderful job as the narrator, delivering poignant monologues that add a key dose of comportment to the production. Ally Farzetta accomplishes much as the forever-knitting queen, who never says a word despite being onstage for all 110 minutes, managing a curious and even bewitching presence that helps to sell her intricate role in the play's ending, an act that is only told second hand.
The most pleasant surprise of the production may have been Michael Frishman as the leader of Creon's guards. Frishman's everyman former sergeant embodies the infinitely more common blue-collar pawn who so often hangs in the balance between the self-important drama that is waged by a society's elites. The guard wants to feed his kids, stay in his wife's good graces and not get on the wrong side of those he works for. Frishman, who also gave a strong performance in this year's Loot, lends so much authenticity to the role that he can't help but draw much more attention to the character than Anouilh seemed to have in mind. I relish the opportunity to see him in bigger parts.
Richard E. Cannon has designed a remarkable set in one of the most ambitious efforts I've seen in the small Cook Theatre, and with all of the play's characters frozen in place as you enter, the spectacle sets a heavy tone.
In the capable hands of director Andrei Malaev-Babel, Antigone ultimately manages to avoid collapsing under the weight of its own ambitions to deliver an enjoyable evening of theater along with a rare opportunity to see this unique and somewhat forgotten play.
Antigone runs through April 27 at the Cook Theatre in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Asolo Rep website.
|Photo by Frank Atura|
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