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Sophocles has some catching up to do. Long before his unyielding Antigone took her place in one of the most monumental of world drama’s agons, she was rehearsing more supple and playful identities for herself, along with some perturbing proposals for anyone who believes that there are only two sides to any conflict. This other Antigone—a pre-Antigone as much as a post-, whose story is later whispered into the ear of a puppet Sophocles to make his own—is boldly imagined by playwright Mac Wellman as a woman who not only understands that “all good things come in threes” (rather than twos), but who also possesses the ironic sense needed to make unexpected poetry out of such banalities. She’s blessed, as Wellman’s characters always are, with a robust confidence in the power of sentences to be journeys—heady and swift—and with an ease of movement among idioms that weave the archaic worlds of myth into our own prosaic one: “I am a stranger, Ismene, my eyes see the clearest. I am clearing out.”
The dialectic of discovery that makes Wellman’s theater so compelling has found several ideal co-conspirators here: Sophocles for one, whose intellectualism makes him a worthy interlocutor for Wellman’s first foray into Greek material; and the superb Big Dance Theater team of director Paul Lazar and choreographer Annie-B Parson, whose unique theatrical style matches Wellman’s linguistic playfulness in both its inventiveness and its rigor. Like Wellman, Lazar and Parson relish searching for the secret affinities among things, and they trust in theater’s power to contain the multiplicities from which connections might be made. On the expansive and inviting stage of the glorious new Bessie Schönberg Theater at Dance Theater Workshop, Lazar and Parson have created a world of images and movement that heightens the stakes of Antigone’s quest while at the same time lightening its mood.
A narrator (deliciously called the Shriek Operator) sits at a desk overflowing with a strange assortment of colorful toys and electronic equipment. As played by the astonishing Leroy Logan, he is a figure of folktale and childhood imagination, with snowy white beard, burnished gown, and ivy crown: Dionysus and Saint Nick rolled into one. Described as an “unknown god of unknown origin,” he helps Antigone play out versions of her story-to-be in concert with The Three Fates, also called The Three Facts, “on their way to becoming The Three Graces” (which they do most convincingly in the play’s amazing final moments). Doubling as the Fates and other characters in the tale, Molly Hickok, Rebecca Wisocky, and Tricia Brouk are fascinating to watch as they maneuver the wonderfully incongruous tools of their storytelling—a film-shoot boom and dolly, a toy piano—lapsing periodically from their mythic pronouncements and arduous actions into comical chattering and scurrying. Didi O’Connell is a funny, feisty, and heartbreaking Antigone, much more on the side of the questions than the dogmas, touchingly bemused by the future implications of her act of defiance.
Those future implications extend very decisively to our own conflict-filled moment. While any version of Antigone’s story told today could not fail to evoke the current tyrants of Creon’s lineage, this one makes the connection forthrightly. Early in the play, the corpse of Polyneices is made out of a Greek helmet and a modern army camouflage blanket. Then, in an image we New Yorkers can hardly fail to recognize, a stream of sand pours down upon it. “From the sky. Something is covered. Something mangled and horribly dead.” Lest we fall prey to self-pity, however, that camouflage blanket returns at the end of the play, three of them now, covering the three Fates like tents in a desert. And lest we think that the repetitions of myth assure us eternity in spite of our follies, the play leaves us with as equivocal—and quietly terrifying—an evocation of apocalypse as can be imagined.
The secret of this brilliant production is its confidence in theater as a language unlike any other, in which ideas can be danced, jokes sung, and stories told with such odd props as a battery-operated ball of fur. In one short hour, Wellman’s audaciously deconstructive text is enchantingly reconstructed by Parson’s understated dances, Cynthia Hopkins’s eccentric songs, and Claudia Stephens’s striking costumes. The simple set, designed by Joanne Howard, makes its own surprising contribution when its Doric columns are revealed, through a lighting change, to be made of gauzy fabric and car tires. Such unexpected transformations and ironic revelations are the pleasures of this play, whose theater language packs more imagery and releases more imaginative possibilities than many verbose trilogies. In a mixture of styles, and with references that include the melodramatic dialogue of Bollywood and the pop musics of China and Uzbekistan, Big Dance’s Antigone blithely brings the prehistory of one of the West’s great myths into the postmodern, globalized present. Like the Wooster Group’s recent retelling of Phaedra, this inspired return to an ancient source deploys equal measures of skepticism and conviction in its rendering of Sophocles’ great ode to humankind: “What is more weird than man? Or woman?”