February 12, 2020

Theatre Intime Presents Anne Carson’s “Antigonick”; Adaptation of the Sophocles Tragedy is Surreal, Poetic

“ANTIGONICK”: Performances are underway for “Antigonick.” Presented by Theatre Intime and directed by Paige Elizabeth Allen ‘21, the play runs through February 15 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Antigone (Allison Spann, center) is visited by the spirits of her dead brothers, personified by NIck (Natalia Orlovsky, left) and Chorus (Kai Torrens). (Photo by Naomi Park ‘21)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Poet, essayist, and former Princeton University professor Anne Carson’s 2012 play Antigonick originally was published as a book, with illustrations by Bianca Stone. The work is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone (c. 441 B.C.E.), as well as a meditation on previous interpretations of it, including mid-20th century productions by theater practitioners such as Bertolt Brecht.

Theatre Intime, whose cast and production team consist of Princeton University students, is presenting Antigonick. Directed by Paige Elizabeth Allen, the production brings its own point of view to the story, while borrowing some of the book’s imagery.

Carson retains Sophocles’ use of a chorus, whose poetic interludes demarcate the play’s seven scenes. However, Allen has repurposed these lines for a single character, still referred to as “Chorus” (portrayed by Kai Torrens).

In terms of the story, Carson’s adaptation is faithful to its source. Eteokles and Polyneikes — the sons of Oedipus, the late king of Thebes — have died while fighting each other for the throne. Their final battle is presented in silhouette; the sequence is eerie and striking, a credit to lighting designer Eliana Cohen-Orth and fight choreographer Minjae Kim.

Polyneikes left the kingdom, gathered an army, and attacked the city of Thebes. Because of this, King Kreon — who has ascended to the throne following the deaths of the brothers — decrees that Eteokles will receive a proper burial, but Polyneikes will not. Anyone who buries Polyneikes will be executed.

Antigone and Ismene, the sisters of Eteokles and Polyneikes, argue over Kreon’s edict. Antigone is determined to give Polyneikes a proper burial, despite Ismene’s timid attempts to dissuade her.

Antigonick derives its title from Carson’s addition of a nonspeaking character named Nick, who, according to the published script, “measures things.” Allen has reconceived this character, as well as the chorus, to give the dead brothers an onstage presence.

“The unburied Polyneikes, forbidden [by the denial of a proper burial] from fully passing into the afterlife, seemed to call out from Antigonick’s pages as Nick,” Allen explains in a program note. “In the spirit of Carson’s bold reinterpretation, I read Chorus (originally written as a group of old Theban men) as Eteokles, the brother buried and glorified, the victor who narrates history.”

For Nick, who is given an expressive portrayal by Natalia Orlovsky, choreographer Ines Aitsahalia has devised movements that evoke modern (unstructured) dance. A chilling sequence occurs when Nick seems to be clawing to escape the confines of the length of Polyneikes’ grave.

At other times Nick’s hands swish back and forth, as if conducting Ed Horan’s atonal incidental music, the atmospheric quality of which is enhanced by Sophia Chaves-Gamboa’s sound design. Horan’s percussive score often suggests a ticking clock, recalling a line in which Chorus observes, “We’re standing in the nick of time.”

Kreon enters and gives a conspicuously disjointed speech in which he refers to himself in the third person. “Here are Kreon’s nouns: men, reason, treason, death, ship of state, mine.” A guard reports that Polyneikes’ body has been buried; Kreon orders him to discover who did it.

The guard returns with Antigone. She defiantly argues with Kreon about the merits of his law, which she neither denies nor regrets violating. Ismene attempts to take the blame, which Antigone refuses to allow her to do. Kreon sentences Antigone to be buried alive.

Ismene begs Kreon to be merciful for the sake of his son Haimon, who is Antigone’s fiancé (played by Julien Alam). Haimon himself enters and intercedes for Antigone, but Kreon is unmoved. “Then she’ll die and take another with her,” Haimon warns his father.

Neither Sophocles nor Carson includes a scene in which we see Antigone and Haimon together. However, Allen has interpolated a wordless, tender sequence that allows them a moment of intimacy.

When Antigone is imprisoned in the cave, she is surrounded by Nick on one side, and Chorus on the other. Both touch her hand. Given that in this production Nick and Chorus stand for Antigone’s warring, dead brothers, this moment hints at letting her attempt to be a source of reconciliation, at least in the afterlife.

Allison Spann is outstanding as Antigone. She is equally adept at using her voice, to portray the character’s steely tenacity in her conversations with Ismene and Kreon; and her eyes, with which she is able to give heightened tenderness to the wordless scenes Antigone shares with her brothers and Haimon.

The production is at its most inventive and moving in the scene in which Antigone is sealed in a cave. This partly is a credit to set designer TJ Smith (assisted by Grey Raber, Riti Bhandarkar, Amisha Srivastava, and Anaika Mehra). At the center of the stage is a black box that initially serves as a grave for Polyneikes. Eventually the box rises to become the cave. Allen’s staging and Spann’s body movements create claustrophobic, harrowing stage pictures of Antigone’s suffocation.

Carl Bindman imbues his performance as Kreon with a domineering sneer that befits the character. He and Chris Villani, who plays the blind prophet Tiresias, are forceful in a scene in which Tiresias warns the king that Haimon may die if Antigone is not spared.

Both actors’ performances could be improved by adding nuance. The characters could be a bit more convincing and distinct, if the intensity of the scene is given more room to grow, rather than maintaining the same volume and power throughout the interaction. (Villani plays two other roles: a guard and a messenger.)

Juliana Wojtenko is capable as Ismene, though in the initial scene between Antigone and Ismene, there is room for heightened contrast between Antigone’s defiance and Ismene’s capitulation. Wojtenko is strongest in her other role: Kreon’s wife Eurydike. She convincingly depicts Eurydike’s anger at a loss she suffers, as well as her lack of agency within the palace — and the script. (“This is Eurydike’s monologue; it’s her only speech in the play,” she quips bitterly.)

Makeup designer Anna Grace McGee draws red lines on Nick’s face. These suggest wounds received in battle, and echo one of Stone’s illustrations for Carson’s book: a spool of thread that recalls a line delivered by the chorus, “Your plan is to sew yourself into your own shroud using the tiniest of stitches.”

Costume designer Naomi Park (assisted by JJ Lopez Haddad) gives Kreon a bright red tie that is excessively short and looks a bit silly. However, the addition of a red cloth to Eurydike’s outfit takes on special significance.  Chorus’s outfit suggests an army shirt and helmet, supporting Allen’s conception of the character as a soldier.

Allen’s staging strategically uses vertical levels. During their initial argument, Kreon physically forces Antigone to the ground. Later, when he is forced to face the consequences of decisions he makes, Kreon sits on the ground, while those who have been harmed by his decisions stand over him.

There are individual production elements whose effectiveness could be heightened. But at its best, Theatre Intime’s Antigonick complements Carson’s poetic, often surreal text, while finding places to add character development, enhance the story’s emotional impact, and explore the dramatic possibilities of dance.

Antigonick will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through February 15. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.