Trust theater Olympian Ellen Stewart to salute the 2004 Athens games. She’s scheduled a spring retrospective of the six Greek works (Medea, Electra, Trojan Women, Mythos Oedipus, Seven Against Thebes, and Dionysus: Filius Dei) she’s presented since 1972, when Andrei Serban directed his seminal Medea. That’s only the beginning, though. She’s premiering a Great Jones Repertory Company production of Antigone in which Olympic events are the suspenseful centerpiece.
Stewart gets Antigone’s horn-lock with Creon over the burial of her brother Polyneices out of the way in minutes—Antigone being a near anagram of “no agon in it.” Shortly afterward she has a large mattress dragged onto the long and wide La MaMa Annex floor along with a bar on supports. She then dispatches the buff men from her 36-member company to test their leaping skills in gold lamé neo-Speedos. Eventually, Antigone’s high-jumping son Maeon (no genealogy questions, please) is recognized by Creon as a damn Spartan, and a hit man is contracted. Death and resurrections ensue, leading to the destruction of Thebes.
But the plot outline is hardly the point and may not have been since Stewart inaugurated her series. Increasingly, as these treatments accumulate, Stewart proves she has her own idea of how Greek mythology should be presented, and the debuting Antigone is no exception. In her estimation Sophocles and Euripides aren’t the be-all and end-all. They come too late for her, since the tragic values Aristotle codified imply refinement—not that the fifth century B.C. was especially refined. (Mac Wellman’s recent Antigone at Classic Stage Company also waves appreciatively at Sophocles as it hurries backward past him. Is this a trend?)
Stewart appears to be thinking about the origins of the word theater, “thea” meaning “watch” or “see” in Greek. Her productions are something to see, and that’s not just employing the vernacular. The dancing (“the company” is credited with the Antigone choreography), the music (Elisabeth Swados back at her old stand), and the spare dialogue and unspare lyrics (all written by Stewart in a hodgepodge of tongues) add up to pageants, not tragedies. The awe inspired is visual and aural rather than emotional. The cathartic moments are meager; in Antigone few of them involve the title character, who gets buried under a large flat stone placed over a circle of smaller, rounder stones, as she also does at the Seven Against Thebes finale. (Though the actors make like they’re hauling burdens as they stumble around, the stones are fake—not helpful when one inadvertently falls and makes the wrong kind of thud.)
In Antigone, the keening that Swados has musicalized is potent, but the Olympic workouts are the thing. So is the sequence when the Epigoni march on Thebes to rectify the earlier deaths of the seven. Six actors arriving in pairs—with a puppet built to look like a giant between them—dominate the expansive stage. Stewart keeps deploying special effects (the result of cheerful imagination rather than large budgets) as well as arranging solemn and occasionally joyful parades. The same is true of Mythos Oedipus and Seven Against Thebes, both also presented in the festival’s first week. In Seven Against Thebes, the one-on-one combat that the hearties from Argos have with their Theban counterparts are the exciting central action. Incidentally, the actors staged their fights, the most riveting of which occurs in a huge slatted wheel as it rolls slowly across the floor.
There are moments when Stewart’s hard-working, self-effacing cast members—Julia Martin as Antigone, Federico Restrepo as Maeon, Brian Nishii as Oedipus, Mia Yoo as Iocaste—seem to experience grief, pain, joy, and the audience fleetingly shares their feelings. But on balance, this is Stewart’s picture show. She’s made herself the local Ariane Mnouchkine and the La MaMa Annex the neighborhood Cartoucherie.