Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Evening in Prospect Heights: Xoregos Performing Company presents "Antigone" at Mount Prospect Park

This evening we had the pleasure of seeing the excellent Xoregos Performing Company's production of our favorite Greek tragedy, Antigone, in a wonderful outdoor setting, the heights of Mount Prospect Park, nestled off Eastern Parkway between the Central Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza and the Botanic Gardens and Brooklyn Museum. It's the second highest point in Brooklyn.

Director and choreographer Sheila Xoregos and her talented cast, some of whom we'd seen last year in this company's wonderful version of Medea in Tompkins Square Park, presented the last play in Sophocles' Theban trilogy with sophistication, economy and grace.

This 65-minute production featured standout performances by the versatile Amanda Elizabeth Sawyer in the title role

(she was a very different eponymous heroine in last year's Medea and David Allen Green as Creon, the king she opposes who brings disaster upon himself and his family

(he was excellent in last year's Medea in dual roles, including a very different king named Creon), as well as seven other actors, five of whom, along with Sawyer and Green, doubled as members of the chorus.

Sheila Xoregos did an amazing job in whipping up this version of Antigone; it's both dignified and exciting; thoughtful and passionate; and austere while capacious in its scope. It was easy to tune out the occasionally noisy softball game in the field behind them (there were rhubarbs over various plays not of the Greek tragedy variety) or the few passing joggers or scooter kids.

We've taught Antigone for the past five years in a dozen of our Literature and Writing classes at the wonderful School of Visual Arts, so we adore the various translations and adaptations of the text. The choral odes here are especially fine, as Sophocles uses gorgeous language to explore real dilemmas of the role of the ruler, the duties of citizen, the loyalty of a family member, and of law and justice, as well as meditations on transience and love.

We also taught Antigone in our undergraduate legal studies classes when we were a visiting professor at Fort Lauderdale's Nova Southeastern University in 2000-01, and a few years later, when we were director of the academic resource program and associate director of student services at NSU's Shepard Broad Law Center, Antigone was the subject of our first law and humanities symposium to honor our dear late colleague, Professor and Associate Dean Paul R. Joseph.

Antigone raises issues that are out of our daily newsfeeds. We often teach Sophocles' play along with that seminal documentary in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which the civil rights leader explains why, for the first time, he disobeyed the law and explores the distinction between just and unjust laws, natural and unnatural laws -- all themes of Antigone.

Usually when we teach Antigone, we show scenes from the two VHS tapes we've managed to find at the SVA media center and the Brooklyn Public Library, the subtitled epic 1961 Greek film with Irene Papas (which breaks the conventions of Greek staged drama and has action sequences, with the real Greek army playing soldiers) and the very British stylized TV version from 1984, with Juliet Stevenson, Sir John Gielgud as Tiresias, and John Shrapnel as a Nixonian Creon. The Xoregos Performaing Company version would be an even better adjunct to reading the play.

The costumes, designed by Regina Cate, were all subtle variations on the same theme, blending earth tones with the royal purple, as the seven cast members seamlessly, with appropriate facial gestures and subtle body language moved from the major characters to members of the choral group. Especially effective was the way the chorus spoke as individuals and pairs, with all joining at various important points. Some verses were sung or half-sung, and that worked, as did Sheila Xoregos' vibrant choreography in the ode on the hazards of love.

Both Amanda Elizabeth Sawyer's Antigone and David Allen Green's Creon are proud and loyal, but her frustrations with her role as a woman and her fierce devotion to her late brother, despite his treachery against the city-state, and to the gods inform her every decision. Antigone's fatalism, presented in Sawyer's sometimes unyielding line readings, makes her seem a little in love with death. Her sovereign and uncle/great-uncle/fiance's father Creon, on the other hand, seems equally more unyielding, and Green shows him sure in his knowledge that the law is on his side as a tyrant (not necessarily a bad connotation in ancient Greece) -- but this Creon is extraordinarily vulnerable, and he's less steadfast and stubborn than in some productions. His adamant behavior comes less out of arrogance than a desire not to appear weak to a people hungry for strong leadership.

As Ismene, Amy Bohaker is in some sense more aware of the sufferings of their family than her strong-headed sister; she sees they've already endured so much and wonders even if Antigone's burial of their brother against the king's decree is worth the tragedies she correctly predicts it will engender. It's not entirely fear and lack of courage that motivate her, although she too knows that the laws of the gods trump those of man.

Michael Lawrence Eisenstein did an excellent job as Haemon, Creon's son and Antigone's fiance, as he sensibly tries to sort out the conflicting values and passions with a fierce but underplayed urgency. His speech telling his father to be like the trees that bend with the wind rather than the rigid ones that break, was delivered beautifully. (We liked Eisenstein last year as a feckless Jason in Medea, too.)

To the role of Eurydice, the queen whose devotion to her husband Creon and son Haemon is unquestionable, Katherine Mylenki brings a steely regal demeanor with the look of a woman who's already seen too many horrible scenes and cannot endure the one last blow. She appears only near the end of the day, but her suicide -- like those of Antigone and Haemon, played offstage as the conventions of Greek drama demanded -- is made even sadder by the actor's creating a believable human character existing apart from her formal role in the state. Bong Dizon, perhaps the sparkplug of the chorus, meticulously narrates the details of the violent central scene of the tragedy as the Theban trilogy and the doomed house of Oedipus reaches its conclusion.

If there's any comic relief in this headlong, onrushing drama, it's Reagan Porter's quirky Sentry, whose digressions and hesitations in delivering bad news to the king are a product of the kindest person in the play, the one in the lowest position in society and aware not just of the tenuousness of his own life but of his own shortcomings and those even of a king. Like the others, he also blended in with the chorus for most of the play. The actors were never "offstage."

All that is, except one speaking role. Apart from the actors/characters who make up the chorus, the blind prophet Tiresias (and his boy guide, played with quiet dignity by a very young Brennan-Pierson Wang) comes on late in the action, but the stentorian and sonorous Andrew R. Cooksey absolutely dominates the action. His dynamic voice and physical presence were so ominous and magnetic that he seemed to hypnotize a couple of little boys in the audience, who in one of those moments that make street theater so magical, stood fixed close to Cooksey as Tiresias issued his prophecy and responded to the king's insults.

There were cries of "Bravo!" and "Brava!" as the cast members did their curtain call -- something we don't recall hearing in any other play we've seen in the parks. It was well-deserved. We're grateful to the Xoregos Performing Company for bringing Antigone to Brooklyn for one night. If you can catch it at one of the Manhattan or Queens libraries or parks in its remaining performances (until August 13), you'll be doing yourself a favor.

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