‘Antigone’ reigns supreme in new San Francisco production

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“Antigone” is a play with a serious body count. As the third and final volume of Sophocles’ Theban plays, “Antigone” begins with the death of two brothers and ends with a triple suicide. “Antigone” is a text well known to the point of near tedium, but at the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco, an eight-person cast has brought haunting new urgency to the ancient Greek tale.

“Antigone” begins in media res — in the middle of things. Brothers Eteocles and Polyneices have just killed each other in battle, and the newly crowned king, Kreon, declares that Eteocles will be buried as a hero while Polyneices, a traitor, must be left unburied. Antigone, ignoring the pleas of her sister, Ismene, defies the king’s decree and buries Polyneices. In burying her brother against the king’s command, Antigone demonstrates loyalty to her kin but treachery to the crown, an act for which Kreon sentences her to death. It is in this moral intersection, the place between political duty and personal loyalty, that the chaos of the production unfolds.

Director Paige Roger’s production of “Antigone” harnesses this chaos and forges it into something more potent, pointed and ambitious than those familiar with a standard academic translation of the text will recall. “Antigone” is the second play in Cutting Ball’s “Examining Injustice” series, and it has been deemed “the original civil disobedience play” by artistic director Rob Melrose. Indeed, “Antigone” is a play concerned with the obligation of the subject to the state, of the ruler to the ruled, of sibling to sibling and of child to parent.

Perhaps most importantly, as Antigone’s demise reminds us, the play explores the obligation we have to uphold our own convictions, no matter the cost.

Working from a new translation by Daniel Sullivan, this iteration of “Antigone” is a production that demands much of its audience and of its actors. At 90 minutes long without an intermission, the play rushes forward at an unrelenting pace. All eight cast members remain onstage throughout the duration of the performance, which includes interpretive dance-and-song sequences that function like physical and musical extensions of the text. The movement sequences and musical interludes are integrated seamlessly between dialogue-heavy scenes and long choral monologues and, incredibly, the actors move deftly between song, speech and dance.

Each actor delivers an skillful performance that underscores the competing loyalties at stake. Of particular note are Antigone’s sister, Ismene (Hannah Donovan), and her betrothed, Haemon (Wiley Naman Strasser). Ismene is a woman caught between the will of her sister and the word of her king, while Haemon, son of Kreon, wants to honor his father and save his beloved. Donovan’s and Strasser’s performances do much to depict the conflicting desires of each character and complement the stoic, strong-willed Antigone (Madeline H.D. Brown), insidiously charismatic Kreon (Jason W. Wong) and commanding blind prophet Tiresias (Paul Loper).

Not to be outdone, the play’s choral monologues — the hallmark of Greek theater — have been expanded and reworked to great effect in Sullivan’s translation and are led in forceful earnest by Elissa Beth Stebbins. In all, strong performances and an imaginative integration of song and movement result in a production that is as accomplished as it is ambitious.

It is worth noting that, for all its innovation, the production’s language and setting have not been excessively modernized or placed in any other identifiable time period. The set, save two looming portraits of the deceased brothers, is stark, and costumes are simple garments in shades of navy and black. Instead, the actors rely on their bodies and voices, not props or costumes, to locate themselves within each scene.

This sparseness positions “Antigone” as a sort of liminal work, one that does not belong entirely to the ancient world or to our own. Instead, “Antigone” inhabits a timeless space — that place where tragedy strikes and human lives are held in the balance.

Cutting Ball’s “Antigone” will be playing until March 29.


Contact Sarah Adler at [email protected].