I've seen a lot of off-off-Broadway and workshop productions in the past year that have played with meta-theatricality, political symbolism, and reworking classics. Some have utterly failed, some have been more successful, and some I've reviewed positively. After seeing Rising Phoenix Company's Too Much Memory at the New York Theatre Workshop, however, I've found exactly what I've been looking for but have failed to find all this time: a truly honest, tough but fair, and remarkably intelligent play that didn't implicitly apologize for its very existence.
Perhaps the smartest thing Too Much Memory does is start the play by setting humorous but very important ground rules. With no attempt to create a fourth wall (actors even greet their friends in the audience while waiting for the play to start), the "Chorus" (Martin Moran) describes the play as "an adaptation of an adaptation of a retranslation" of Antigone, while wisecracking with his fellow actors. But within this explanation of the theatrical ground rules is one of the best explanations of the nature of adaptation I've ever heard:
A director can take a Greek play and have people come on riding motorcycles, come in on motorized scenery. We don't have that kind of room. There's a hundred ways in which you can bring something into the present. We have that freedom, but like I said, in today's world, things being what they are, I think we also have an obligation. To speak up.
How I wish every other company in New York City believed this! Incidentally, that statement works equally well for coping with tragedy. Tragedy, Moran points out later, never ends well—one of things that makes tragedy so upsetting is how inevitable and arbitrary things are. That lack of justice applies equally well to politics, which is what ties this adaptation of an adaptation of a retranslation of Antigone together.
In previous generations, it was the responsibility of the young to speak up, and the responsibility of the old to react when the young had a point. Now, with a generation taught that the system of justice is hopelessly arbitrary, that instinct to speak up has been silenced by the same people who initially were doing the speaking up. Playwrights Keith Redden and Meg Gibson have recognized that while justice and laws may not follow any logical standards, the instinct to speak up, to fight against injustice no matter how pointless, can never be fully overcome. They're lucky to have a 2000-year old play that almost too perfectly fits those beliefs.
Unlike almost any other tragic hero or heroine, Antigone recognizes the fate that will follow her actions from start to finish. Doing what she believes is right, she has no doubts about the repercussions of her actions, unlike Hamlet, Willy Loman, or even her father Oedipus. Antigone knows that she is to die because of sticking to her principles. In Sophocles, she dies with hardly a flinch.
Sticking with your beliefs to the point of death is an infatuating concept, but it's more martyrdom than tragedy. In most other versions of Antigone, it's Creon who takes the brunt of the tragedy when his son Haemon and wife Eurydice commit suicide. In this version, Antigone is the most affected by the tragedy, but with a path to tragedy in reverse. At first resigned to death, she ultimately breaks down in remorse as she realizes the full implications of giving up her life for an idea. Ideas can go on without her. It's Antigone's real emotions—her love for Haemon, her hopes for the future—that can never be reclaimed upon her death. Conversely, instead of feeling any remorse, Creon ends up resigned to the fate of his principles, even after his own tragedies befall him.
This confounding vision of tragedy and political philosophy could be too much to take at once if it wasn't handled as deftly as it is by Reddin and Gibson, who resist all instincts to turn the play into a lecture. That's why the introduction was so useful—it allowed for the audience to look past the ideas of the show by laying out those ideas immediately. As a result of the honesty of this adaptation, none of the show's political parallels to the present seem forced, nor do its occasional fits of fancy seem misplaced (though in one misstep in Gibson's direction, she makes a superfluous allusion to waterboarding). The device of the introduction recalls Our Town, but rather than being a detached, omniscient Stage Manager, Moran claims no responsibility for or predetermined knowledge of what is to come. Instead, he tries to make sense of what's happening on stage as it happens. For this production, as in life, that's the best anyone can do.
All that would make Too Much Memory a clever, exciting play on an intellectual level. The play's moving, visceral edge comes almost entirely from Laura Heisler's absolutely life-affirming performance as Antigone. I first saw Heisler steal the show in an otherwise unimaginative Williamstown production of Top Girls in 2005. Having made a career of playing mentally unstable and vulnerable young girls, Heisler is stunning and tear-jerking throughout Too Much Memory, flawlessly managing an Antigone whose emotional range varies among adolescent incorrigibility, young love, and tragic devastation at almost a moment's notice. In the Village Voice back in May, Heisler seemed surprised at how often she gets cast as a teenager. After a performance like her Antigone, in which she single-handedly ratchets up the play to a level of transcendence, there should be no doubt that Heisler has the ability to capture the indignant, righteous, and confused nature of youth at a level that, other than perhaps Zoe Kazan, is simply unrivaled among today's American stage actresses.
The play makes use of texts from Richard Nixon, Pablo Neruda, Peter Brook, Susan Sontag, and Hannah Arendt, but those quotes are so seamlessly integrated into the text that only the most obsessed individuals will recognize where they pop up. Again, there are infinite ways to adapt Sophocles, just as there are infinite ways to reimagine Nixon (and the range of Nixon adaptations is already staggering). But this is an adaptation that has something important to say, which is rarer than you might think.
In this case, the political symbolism takes a back seat to what this play says about the nature of adaptation. It's true that ideas last longer than individual lives, or adaptations. But to the play's creators, the fleetingness of an individual life or adaptation may actually make it more valuable. That ideas persist doesn't mean they ever get settled, but the human need to settle them is an essential part of our existence. That Reddin and Gibson see this view in all its complexity makes Too Much Memory one the most vital theatrical adaptations of the present day, and one of the most intelligent adaptations I've ever seen. No matter whether you're resigned to, or perpetually frustrated by, politics, philosophy, or any other aspect of human life, there's a side of Too Much Memory that will make you think differently. And that's the best thing any adaptation can ever do.
Too Much Memory by Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson, adapted from an adaptation of a retranslation of Sophocles' Antigone; directed by Gibson; set design by Ola Maslik; costume design by Clint Ramos; lighting design by Joel Moritz; sound design by Brandon Epperson; video design by Joseph Tekkipe. Photos by Paula Court.
Starring Martin Moran (Chorus), Laura Heisler (Antigone), Aria Alpert (Ismene), Seth Numrich (Haemon), Peter Jay Fernandez (Creon), Ray Anthony Thomas (Jones), Jamel Rodriguez (Barnes/Messenger), MacLeod Andrews (Stuart), and Wendy vanden Heuvel (Eurydice).
Too Much Memory runs through December 22 at New York Theatre Workshop's Fourth Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street. Tickets can be purchased at www.smarttix.com.