One of Greek drama’s most powerful developments was the agon, or contest. Typically this means a contest of wills, a battle between two strong individuals, both of whom are justified, either morally or legally. Sometimes the agon intensifies with neither side giving an inch until it’s too late and all hell has broken loose. This concept was used in The Iliad and other classics and Shakespeare made brilliant use of it in Titus Andronicus.
One of the greatest, if not the greatest dramatization of this hideous dance is in Sophocles’s masterpiece Antigone. The agon here is between Creon, the King of Thebes, and Antigone, daughter of Oedipus. Creon, newly made King, has declared the belligerent (and recently dead) Polyneices an enemy of Thebes, and he forbids his corpse to be buried. Antigone is Polyneices’ sister, who, running out of living family members, cannot bear for her brother’s spirit to wander the earth in torment while his body lies rotting in the desert, devoid of the proper funeral rites. She takes action, and Creon responds. And so it goes. The power of this play has not faded a bit in over two thousand, four hundred years, and some productions have been known to stun and horrify audiences with its gripping story and what must be one of the most ghastly, cathartic endings in all of classical drama, perhaps second only to Medea.
The play is aptly staged and acted by the LES Shakespeare Company in a new production staged by artistic director Melody Efrani. The staging consists mostly of scenes presented in a straightforward manner, interspersed with pantomimes choreographed by Nick Neagle in which the white clad, barefoot actors join and sculpt themselves into structures such as Creon’s Throne and at one point a stack of thinkers, sitting atop one another totem-pole style, contemplating Creon’s dilemma. There is even a fairly cringe-inducing moment near the end in which the actors contort themselves into letters spelling the word LOVE across the stage.
The cast is somewhat uneven; Adriana Bohmier underplays Antigone, and Mike Maloney, as Creon, sometimes comes across as a bit whiny. Jae Woo is terrific as Tiresias, the seer who warns Creon that he is on the wrong path. He masterfully understands both the character of the blind seer and the shape of his iconic scene; he is not only dramatic to watch and hear but he also captures Tiresias’ majesty quite beautifully. Patrick Falcon is quite strong as Haemon, Creon’s son who is betrothed to Antigone and is one of the few to stand up to his father. Both are standout performances by actors I hope to see more of in the future. Yokko, as one of the more prominent chorus members, was quite strong in energy and interesting to watch but her accent was so heavy I failed to understand about half of what she said, which is a problem since she provides a great deal of exposition.
The simple set by Christina Watanabe suits the play just fine, and the actors are clad in simple white garments as they present the all-important chorus. When an actor steps out of the chorus and become a specific character he or she dons a colored costume, signifying Tiresias, Eurydice or whomever. This is a simple and quite fine idea, but the I wish the costumes looked a bit less like hybrids of kimonos and potato sacks. Creon’s costume in particular gave the actor some trouble as it shifted about when he moved, requiring quick adjustments.
The music, played live by a trio called Lady and the Lion, has a bland space-music vibe that matches with the cosmic themes of the play well enough but doesn’t really heighten the drama. Overall the play moves along at a nice clip and the story unfolds clearly.