Antigone Sans the Drama 

Actors Ensemble drains the sex and violence from Sophocles' ancient play.

Although it's well over two thousand years old, Antigone offers a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lurid pleasures, even for modern audiences. King Oedipus of Thebes kills his father, shags his mother, and pokes his eyes out in shame. Then he dies, bequeathing the throne on two greedy sons whose power-struggle induces a huge civil war. From the ashes emerges their sister Antigone — scrawny, straw-haired, and pale but nonetheless stout-hearted. After her brothers kill each other, she decides to single-handedly fight off their uncle Creon, who is next in line for the throne. Not the best move, given that she's also dating Creon's son Haemon. It's a hot mess.

Modern stagings of Antigone often use some concept or pop culture theme as a filter. Jon Tracy earned high marks last year with a soap opera version on an all-white set. His title character was a lesbian; her sister was a bitchy shopaholic; the two brothers fought each other with machine guns. This year, director Bruce Coughran dredges up a World War II era version conceived by French playwright Jean Anouilh. His Antigone is an allegory about Nazi-occupied France, in which Creon stands for Fascism, Antigone for the French resistance. Such ideas are largely obfuscated in Coughran's new production, staged under the auspice of Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. Rather than dwell on big themes, this version treats Antigone as a potboiler — albeit a dry one. The juicier parts happen offstage.

Heroes and villains materialize from the moment this play begins. The guards play cards at a table, stage left. Eurydice (Victoria F. Siegel) sits knitting on a sofa, stage right. Ismene (played by understudy Allison Blackwell the night I saw this production — Kate Brauneis-Krull normally has the role) sidles against a wall, flirting with Haemon (Jose Garcia). A page (Max Kahl) and messenger (Rahi Azizi) stand at attention. Antigone (Brianna McWhorter) sits by herself in a frowsy purple gown that looks like an old prom dress. A one-man Greek chorus (Norman Macleod), traverses the stage, describes everybody, and explains their importance in the play. With his striped tie and crisp British accent, Macleod has the most commanding presence of any cast member, and he's the easiest to follow through long stretches of monologue.

Indeed, much of this play is exposition. That can be tricky, because the characters are burdened with establishing their own relationships, while relaying complex bits of storyline. The first act largely consists of Ismene and Antigone fussing at each other. It turns out Antigone left the house before dawn to try to give her brother Polynices a proper burial, against Creon's wishes. Ismene, who is supposed to be the more complacent sister, disapproves of Antigone's insubordination. That's a tough thing to get across, because neither actress is that good at conveying a persona. Big-eyed, blond-haired McWhorter doesn't seem like too much of a rebel, and Blackwell isn't a consummate goodie-goodie, either. Moreover, Greek notions of honor and burial take a lot of fleshing-out. Many audience members will spend the whole first half not understanding the central conflict of the play.

Things start looking up in the second act, with the introduction of Creon (Lee Vogt) and his retinue. Though not an experienced actor, Vogt is good at playing a war profiteer with insecurities and ticks. And Creon is undoubtedly the play's best character. Foul-tempered for a tyrant, he often gets riled up and starts slapping a roll of paper against his leg for emphasis. Yet he's obviously good at consolidating power. In fact, Creon's cabinet takes up about half the cast of Antigone. Frederick Lein plays the lead guard — a surly, blue-collar type. He speaks in a folksy drawl and uses the present tense to describe past events. The other sentries are card sharks with slicked-back hair and rumpled suits. Poor Kahl, the page, is the smallest and most exploitable. He has to spend entire scenes standing in a far corner, to the point that he becomes a piece of furniture.

Unfortunately, he's more interesting to watch than some of the more prominent cast members. In a play that's supposed to be saturated with sex and violence, it's surprising that the lead characters barely ever touch each other. McWhorter and Garcia share one of the most dispassionate kisses to ever be performed on a Berkeley stage. Vogt gets McWhorter in a half-nelson, but somehow maintains a two foot distance. The actors move stiffly about the stage, more in the fashion of people doing choreography than bringing a story to life.

Shifts in personnel might be partly to blame (in all, the production has two Ismenes, eight Euridyces, and four rotating guards), but more likely it's the result of cast members focusing on line memorization, rather than inhabiting a persona. At some point in the second act, Macleod breaks down the fourth wall and starts pontificating on the cleanness of tragedy. It's a clean form, he says, because it relies on predestination. You know everyone is going to die in the end, so there's no need to get worked up about it. Coughran, tragically, turned that idea into a credo. A better Antigone would veer toward melodrama.

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