Stage Left Theatre

At the opening of the show the lights went down. They stayed down. After a minute or more passed I heard a voice from the light booth whisper “What’s wrong?” Then director Dennis McCullough called for light, hastily, apologized to the audience, and headed backstage. If the show had ended right there, Stage Left would have gone down in Chicago theater history with credit for the first Futurist production of Antigone. But to my eventual regret, the technical problem was solved and the show went on.

The much longer and unendurable production that followed borrows from both Sophocles’ and Anouilh’s versions of Antigone. To these mismatched sources McCullough has added some original material, recasting the chorus as foreign correspondents and press agents, and setting the action in a third-world country. In spite of the production, using members of the media as the chorus was a brilliant idea, both preserving and cleverly updating the classical function of the chorus as interlocutor, mood setter, and social context. The problem is that the original material written for the chorus is the pits. And once it’s mixed in with Sophocles and Anouilh, you’ve got your definitive classic-in-a-blender production.

The press first appear at a local watering hole, exchanging gratuitous banter. But they don’t look like reporters. They look like avocational actors pretending to be reporters. This impression refuses to subside, and the banter turns to exposition as the new kid on the beat gets filled in on all the local political dope. If you know the plot and premise of Antigone, you may be tempted to daydream through this scene, but stay alert if you don’t want to miss the one decent performance of the evening: Marguerite Hammersley as the waitress. Once the background for the drama is established, the scene concludes with an inexplicable appearance by Antigone that incites a frenzy of flash photography, capturing her in a rapid sequence of Georges Marciano ad poses.

Other scenes involving the media chorus are equally trendy and shallow. There’s a street poll in which as sorted citizens of Thebes answer the question, “Do you feel Creon’s decision is a correct one?” In another scene, expressionless press reps and advisers cluster about the distraught Creon like cigar-store Indians attending upon Nixon during the last days of his administration. Most heinous of all is a blatant rip-off of Broadcast News, when a TV reporter covering Antigone and Haemon’s double suicide pretends to crack up with grief, later advising the cameraman not to edit anything out because “it’s good.” Yeah, sure.

The media gimmick is a good idea gone bad. It’s disappointing, considering all the implicit dramatic potential in how the media distorts politics, invents false issues, and reduces complex issues to baby food. McCullough should have turned his idea over to someone who could write a whole new Antigone. This cut-and-paste job is shoddy and inconsistent in both tone and theme.

The inconsistency of the production becomes most apparent when the show stalls during the interminable confrontation between Creon and Antigone. This scene is lifted almost entirely from Anouilh’s version. It’s wordy and didactic, and cut of wholly different cloth than McCullough’s adaptation. As Creon and Antigone hash out their debate of power versus honor, you get the incongruous feeling that you’re watching a melodrama. Creon is bad. Antigone is too good. And everything is so bogus, with the actors gritting their teeth, pouncing on cues, and bursting predictably into shouting matches. It’s scenes like this that make the word “dramatic” synonymous with phony.”

Contributing substantially to the phoniness of this scene, and of the play in general, is David Barr (as Creon). Barr’s acting consists primarily of his “dramatic” voice. It’s hard to listen to after a while, although Barr never appears to tire of listening to himself. Also doing a good deal of listening during this scene is Shira Piven (as Antigone). By God she can listen! She stands there completely composed, her head thrown heroically back, as if she were posing for a coin. Every now and then a fractured smile plays across her face. Eventually her smile becomes as annoying as Barr’s voice. No doubt the voice is supposed to speak of Creon’s power and overweening pride, and the smile stands for Antigone’s smart-ass, morally superior attitude. But used as lavishly as they are here, these things betray themselves for what they are–the masks of insecure actors.

Finally this scene ends, after exhausting half of the show’s playing time. But with no intermission and a whole lot of denouement to come, there’s no relief. You still have to sit through some artsy tableaux, three suicides, a few more media scenes. Tiresias makes two appearances, and (as played by Robert Torchia) he’s not only blind but has an idiosyncrasy of speech that allows him to prophesy things that sound like “Fate works more for falafel fluffy dogs . . .”

Somehow, even this prophecy doesn’t persuade Creon to revoke Antigone’s death sentence. And to round out an already rotting and bloated evening, the show finishes off with a folk song (composed by Piven) featuring the ridiculous refrain “And I feel like I’m going insane, thinking about the madness this has been.” Curtain applause was slow in coming, and when it did it was instigated by director McCullough himself.

I’ve seen dozens of modern adaptations of classical and neoclassical plays–the frivolous, the ill-conceived, the postapocalyptic. The vast majority were failures, regardless of their potential. I cannot recommend this production of Antigone for its unrealized potential. Potential isn’t theater. Theater is what is, even if it comes about by accident, like the Futurist Antigone at the start of the show. Now that’s something. As for this other Antigone, it stinks and it could benefit from a speedy burial.