Theater archives

The James Gang vs. Sophocles


The lights are out, not down. Has P.S.122 forgotten to pay its Con Ed bill? Before the question can be considered, a handsome bachelor climbs awkwardly into the audience to relate a personal tale of obsessive love. Enter a prospective governess. Taking a seat beside the man, she listens dutifully to her queer job description: Assume total responsibility for his orphaned niece and nephew and don’t bother him with the details. Baffling silences punctuate the blacked-out conversation, as a second Governess sneaks into the room with two creepy children, one in britches and knee pads, the other clutching a toy crayfish. The gloom onstage begins to slowly brighten, as though lit by an ember. Still, not much is clear, except perhaps the sneaking feeling that the brats would like nothing more than to scare the daylights out of their unsuspecting new nanny.

Room Tone, Elevator Repair Service’s latest wacky collage, turns Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw into a palimpsest for the group’s own peculiar theatrical graffiti. Deriving additional inspiration from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience as well as The Bad Seed and The Innocents (the movie version of Henry James’s spooky novella), this 65-minute movement-theater piece ponders the bugaboos—supernatural and otherwise—that haunt us all. For some, the things that go bump in the night are ghostly, for others plainly sexual. But while darkened spaces may be a breeding ground for both, ERS reminds us that they’re also an invitation for that most occult phenomenon—theatrical possession.

The ensemble, under the direction of John Collins and Steve Bodow, is in top form, with disciplined performances that avoid the self-delighted goofiness that has proved something of an occupational hazard for ERS members in the past. Cutting especially vivid figures are Rinne Groff as the child-harrowed Governess and Susie Sokol as her demonic charge Miles. Katherine Profeta looms as a humorous question mark as the crustacean-clutching young girl, while Charlie Schroeder and Maggie McBrien deepen the mystery through their unseen colloquy. The real star of the piece, however, may be Michael Kraskin’s xylophone soundscape, which fuels the uncredited choreography, inspired apparently by the chase scene in The Shining. As Groff swats a wooden beam furiously through the air, Sokol and Profeta move in staccato fashion, raising the suspense their smirks take devious credit for.

Though Room Tone may be the strongest ERS offering since 1997’s Cab Legs—the company’s quirky dance meditation on Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke—there’s still something characteristically hermetic about the new piece’s vision. Gone, refreshingly, is the insider jokiness. Yet its overall shape has a piecemeal quality that doesn’t ultimately serve the precise execution of the cast. Surely a more patiently constructed theatrical architecture wouldn’t hem in the imagination of one of downtown’s loopier collectives. The fertile material deserves not only rigorous eccentricity but eccentric rigor as well.

When it comes to structural elegance, few works can compare to Sophocles’ Antigone. Though Aristotle may have given the nod to Oedipus Rex in terms of formal perfection, Hegel deemed the author’s earlier Theban play as the high-water mark of Attic dramaturgy. For the German philosopher obsessed with dialectics, Antigone magisterially represented what he termed “the collision of equally justified powers,” or a conflict between right and right. While melodrama gets its kicks from the battle between good and evil, tragedy in Sophoclean hands remains ineluctably drawn to those more insoluble questions that cut to the pathos-filled heart of our condition.

The National Theater of Greece’s powerfully acted production at City Center sheds human light on a few of the drama’s smaller yet not insignificant concerns. For example, why does Antigone treat her sister Ismene so harshly? In the hands of Lydia Koniordou, Antigone emerges as a woman helpless to pursue anything but her single cause: burying her rebel brother Polyneices, whom the newly crowned Creon has deemed an enemy outlaw and thus undeserving of funeral rites. Committed to the irrationality of death as much as Ismene (Maria Katsiadaki) is to the rationality of life, Antigone turns from her sister as one turns from what one loves yet cannot abide. As Antigone chides the chorus during her death procession for ridiculing her self-comparison with mythological divinities, her blush is that of radical idealism confronting the moralizing status quo. There’s no higher compliment than to say that Koniordou brings a psychological lucidity to her portrayal that never domesticates an archetypal pattern.

Just so the aptly named Sophoclis Peppas, whose distinguished performance as Creon underscores the quietness of the tyrant’s conviction. By upholding the polis above the individual, Creon believes he is preserving the welfare of his state. And, of course, the play’s cogency relies on his having a point. Yet the problem, as Hegel notes, is that he attempts to impose the validity of his claim at the expense of Antigone’s. His growing fury at his niece’s defiance—stoked in Peppas’s handling by a Mediterranean male insecurity—seals his disastrous fate. While director Niketi Kontouri’s production doesn’t stand up to the NTG’s sacrificial ritual version of Oedipus Rex in 2000, the strength of her principal actors rescues what would otherwise be a bland staging. All of the nuanced color, however, flows from the passions of unyielding minds.