Attis Theater director Theodoros Terzopoulos’s adaptations of ancient Greek theater look modernist, but actually aspire to recreate the ritual and theatricality of antiquity. The approach resonates with contemporary audiences. His riveting production of Sophocles’ “Ajax” was one of the breakout hits during 2013 Philadelphia FringeArts Festival. Terzopolous is back at the Wilma with a new production of “Antigone” cast with both Attis and Philadelphia actors, in a brilliant translation by Marianne McDonald, with dialogue both in English and Greek.
This collaboration is part of a larger initiative by Wilma Theater’s artistic director Blanka Zizka of establishing a roster of repertory players training and working in diverse theater genres. Terzopoulos is a theorist, classicist and innovator who works with actors on such methods as ‘physiological characterizations’ for instance, all a synthesis of revealing the power of Greek classicism for the artists and the audience. In Antigone, this approach translates into brave, substantive and explosive theater.
Antigone is the story of fated and tragic consequences of the cruel indignities and emotional barbarism of man. ‘The world has many wonder, and none more terrible than man.’ That certainly speaks to the current state of the world.
The first thing the audience sees when they enter the theater is Paolo Musio, the leader of the Greek chorus, on pedestal, mumbling gibberish in Greek with a dagger suspended over his head. The chorus of men in suits in inch forward ritualistically and chant the names of unburied and abused soldiers, they pick up the red placard on the floor that has a gallery of faces from the Unburied Project- people who have disappeared- a message that the themes of the play are as current as today’s news.
After the death of Oedipus, his sons Polyneices and Eleocles kill each other in a war over Thebes. Creon, their uncle, and now king, has pronounced Eleocles a hero and Polyneices a traitor and decrees that his body be denied a dignified burial, but be left unburied for the vultures and dogs to rend. Antigone, their sister vows to retrieve Polyneices’ body and give him a dignified soldier’s burial. Antigone penetrates the battlefield and is captured trying to prepare and bury Polyneices with her bare hands in enemy territory.
Antigone and her sister Ismene suddenly appear at opposite sides of the stage and crawl toward each other face down on the floor. They are anguished over the death of their dead brothers, but part ways when Ismene refuses to help Antigone bury Polyneices’ body, even as their bodies interlock in a dance of opposing wills. Antigone refuses to submit to Creon’s threats and humiliations, challenging him with the fact that even his people are even against him. Creon’s wrath is extended to everyone in his path to power, and his actions are tearing his own country and family apart.
The actors mold their faces in tragedy masques and speak in aerated vocalese to dramatize the portents of the ages. All of the physicality makes you lean into the text even more, especially as McDonald’s tight dialogue both in English and Greek (English supertitles appear above the stage) weaves in an out with exposition of the fate of the characters and country.
Terzopoulos’ choreography continues to tell a visual story. In one of the most memorable scenes, the chorus, bare-chested in ancient kilts, chant in Greek and harmonizing scales, then shaking their heads so furiously that it seems like speeded up film.
There are narrative question marks by the director- Antigone suddenly singing Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess, as she moves through the chorus hugging each man. And if there is a criticism it is that Terzopoulos tends to pile messages on top of so many other theatrical devises that it distracts from the central story which is complicated enough. But, that said, Jennifer Kidwell as Antigone sings this so magnificently, that it’s easy to ignore how incongruous it is on the battlefield of Thebes.
However discursive Terzopoulos gets from Sophocles’ storyline, he directs amazing performances with this ensemble cast. Among the standouts- Sarah Gliko subtly and eloquently navigates the steely ambiguity of Ismene. Steve Rishard is hypnotic as the messenger delivering catastrophic news, and expressing its graphic impact with his body. Jennifer Kidwell is a most passionate and heroic Antigone in a finely crafted vocal and physical performance. The implications of her courage in the face of a corrupt regime resonate on every level. She is the perfect foil to Antonis Miriagos’s volcanic Creon, a full-throated portrait of man’s craven lust for power at any cost.