Royce Gallery may not be ancient Greece, but ‘Antigone’ still hits its mark

Jackleg Theater Project/Courtesy

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The folks putting on “Antigone” at the Royce Gallery chose to open the show with a warning. But it wasn’t about the powerful parallels that exist between the Greek tragedy and today’s modern political climate — rather, this warning was about a freight elevator, one that made a habit of loudly traveling up and down the building, beyond the control of the “Antigone” creative team.

It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of the Royce Gallery’s humble beginnings. Built in 1937 as a cold-storage warehouse facility, it was found unoccupied in the early 1960s by a group of artists looking for a place to call their own. They took up residence and eventually converted the warehouse into the multiuse performance space it is today.

Cut to Friday night, as the production’s director, Gaby Schneider, delivers opening remarks while nervously swirling a glass of red wine. She recently founded the theater company behind “Antigone” after her own company, Theater of Others, was unable to host the production given its Shakespeare focus. She named the new company the Jackleg Theater Project — jackleg, she joked, meaning “shoddily built.”

The story leading up to this production of “Antigone” may be a quirky segment of history, but it’s the legacy of a much grander (and much older) origin. The tragedy was written in ancient Greek by Sophocles in about 441 B.C., during the interlude between the Peloponnesian Wars that placed Athens and Sparta at odds with each other — but it’s better known by a different historical context. It acts as a sequel to “Oedipus Rex,” the familiar play in which the protagonist, Oedipus, kills his father and marries his mother.

Antigone (Haley Roth-Brown), along with her sister Ismene (Claire Fry) and two brothers who have taken each other’s lives in a power struggle, are the children of Oedipus and his mother. Kreon (Federico Edwards), the uncle and brother-in-law of Oedipus, has assumed command over Thebes and threatens to put to death anyone who might dare to allow Antigone and Ismene’s brother a proper burial. Antigone chooses to defy his orders, and Kreon has her put to death; his political and moral inflexibility brings monumental tragedy upon his loved ones.

Antigone may be one of the oldest examples of a fierce, independent female character, but although she is the play’s titular character, the narrative that unfolds is really far more about Kreon. At the show’s core is his central conflict — would it be worse for a leader to give in against his convictions or to defy the noble and unspoken laws of the gods? Though many try to persuade him to listen, not only to his family but to his people, it is in his relentlessly firm political beliefs and inability to hear other arguments that is his undoing. It’s certainly a worthy narrative arc, but again, it would have been much more fulfilling to focus on Antigone and Ismene’s emotional process (not that we can really blame Sophocles, with it being 441 B.C. and all).

The artists behind this production of “Antigone” performed exceptionally well in the difficult task of navigating a translation not only from ancient Greek to English, but from ancient audiences to modern ones. The story felt accessible and perhaps at times even a tad overexplained.

“Your son, my king, has stormed off in anger,” explains the chorus leader (Glenn Havlan) to the king, right after his son storms off in anger.

It can be easy to feel hopeless at the conclusion of a play brimming with tragedy and violence, but Schneider and her team are sure to integrate moments of levity and, more importantly, of hope — whether it comes from Yousuf Fauzan’s humorous performance as the guard or in the encouraging pleas of Kreon’s son, Haemon (Harry Fahn). It’s almost impossible not to see the ways in which flickers of civil disobedience feel profoundly relevant today.

At the show’s curtain call, Schneider returned to the stage, wine glass now empty, to thank her audience. While her vision for “Antigone” may have been relatively simple, it’s far from shoddily built.

Shannon O’Hara covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].