With its depiction of a wartime ruler whose unyielding ideology gradually alienates the home front, ultimately leading to his ruin, Sophocles’ Antigone practically begs to be staged as a rallying cry against the current presidential incumbent. Of course, this classic Greek tragedy, first performed in 442 BC, is no stranger to topical updating: Jean Anouilh’s 1942 version was written in protest of the Nazi occupation of France, while A.R. Gurney reconceived the play in the late ’80s as a gender war between a professor and his female student. Compared with these polemical precedents, the National Asian-American Theatre Company’s current production feels resolutely tame—a spare and mild-mannered interpretation that, save for one piece of stunt casting, places dramatic clarity over conceptual whizbang.
Director Jean Randich keeps the action moving fast and the dialogue even faster. Antigone’s opening scene is condensed into a brief prologue of sisterly grief over the bodies of two brothers, one a patriotic hero, the other a treasonous exile. The entrance of Creon, king of Thebes, signals a quick shift in tone: No sooner has he declared that “the state is stable again” than he learns that Antigone has committed the crime of burying her traitorous brother, and moves for swift punishment. Played in drag by actress Mia Katigbak, Creon is still an incorrigible misogynist, but his swagger is undermined at every turn by the gender reversal. “If I must fall from power, let it be by a man’s hand, never by a woman’s,” Creon says, in words both prophetic and ironic.
Antigone culminates in a showdown between the king and an increasingly distrustful public (embodied by the chorus) whose professed loyalty curdles into a bitter cynicism by the play’s blood-soaked finale. Singing its lines a cappella-style, the chorus also serves as a voice of manly authority that mocks and bullies the condemned heroine. (The costumes—business suits for the male characters, period dresses for the females—underscore the power dynamic.) Death may be the great equalizer, but for Katigbak’s Creon, the war of the sexes is irresolvable. His fall from power is indeed caused by female hands—his own.