Extant Arts Company is mounting an ambitious pairing of Sophocles’s Antigone with a new play by Greg Taubman that parallels the classic Greek tragedy’s story and themes. Directed by Taubman, both feature a ruler who makes a fateful decision that goes against perceived divine will, with fatal consequences for his family.
Both Antigone and Taubman’s Progeny delve deeply into morality. In the former, Oedipus’s daughter Antigone (the impressive Pëtra Denison) defies a sacrilegious order by King Creon of Thebes (Russell Jordan) that her traitorous brother Polynices not be mourned or honorably buried. In Progeny, set in modern times, a Virginia legislator softens his strict anti-abortion position after winning a close gubernatorial election partly on the strength of his uncompromising pro-life stance.
In the new play as in Antigone, two sisters’ fates are tied to the ruler’s policies. The governor (Tony Neil) has been raising his teenaged nieces since their mother’s suicide. Anne (Quinn Warren in a powerful performance) is a hyper-religious pro-lifer who takes drastic action to try to reverse the governor’s decisions to support exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, and (in a twist ripped from recent headlines) to veto a bill requiring women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion. But is there a hidden personal motivation behind his changed stance?
While the play is structured a bit like a Greek tragedy, with a talky, hyperactive press corps functioning like a Chorus, and while it certainly is a tragedy, a commentariat does not a Greek play make. In the plays of Sophocles and Euripides and their compatriots, it was standard for important themes to be mused upon at length by more-or-less passive choruses and for crucial events to be reported on by messengers rather than shown. Even today we know to expect that. But in a modern play, too much telling instead of showing grows wearisome. Progeny‘s florid speeches, so unrealistic coming from a teenager (not to mention from a modern politician!), though just as artificial, work well once we’ve grown accustomed to that intonation, and some of the confrontation scenes between uncle and niece are impressively crafted and handled – but that’s because we don’t demand naturalism from modern drama.
We do expect to see the action. And Progeny is doubly frustrating because its insistent narrative isn’t necessary to our understanding; Taubman has the evident skills to write characters and dialogue that bring a story to life before our eyes and ears. Anne is so fully realized that her landscape of literary language becomes its own reality. But excessively broadly shaped minor characters like the declaiming fundamentalist minister coexist uncomfortably with those who seem more real, like Anne’s sister Sam, sensitively portrayed by Nicole Ivy Greenbaum.
The playwright has built effective parallels to the story and themes of Antigone into his play. This turned out to have the interesting effect of bettering my impression of Progeny, which is performed first, as I watched the performance of Antigone, which follows on the same evening with the same company of actors.
While Ms. Warren’s magnetic performance is the center of Progeny, a trio of emotional foci power this Antigone. In classic Greek drama, actors played multiple roles, and while many modern productions don’t adhere to this tradition, here three actors play all the major parts. In addition to her stalwart and tragic Antigone, Ms. Denison gives us a delightfully (and literally) twisted prophet Teiresias, and a thoughtful Messenger, inhabiting each role forcefully and with conviction.
A bubbly Brandon Tyler Harris brings ferociously funny hyperactivity to the Guard, who brings news of Antigone’s disloyalty to Creon and then drags her in for punishment. His Haemon, Cleon’s son and Antigone’s love, is warm and sympathetic. On the other hand, excessively soft diction mars his otherwise affecting portrayals of the other two female characters, especially Antigone’s loving but ineffectual sister Ismene, making it hard to hear some of the lines. Is the Connelly Theater larger than he expected? It is quite capacious for an Off Off Broadway space, which makes for a nicely non-claustrophobic audience experience. Or was this, perhaps, a deliberate choice so as to contrast Ismene with her rebellious, forthright, and thus “unfeminine” sister?
Mr. Jordan plays only Creon, which makes sense since the king is present in many scenes. Though the ruler seems strangely unemotional at times, his breakdown at the end upon discovering the terrible results of his defiance of the divine rules of honor contributes substantially to the deeply human feeling Taubman and his cast continually draw from this mannered play.
The Chorus sings and sometimes dances its speeches, accompanied by two skillful on-stage musician members. The words are hard to follow in some of these sequences, not because of poor diction or inadequate sound but simply because the thoughts are complex and not always directly tied to the action we’ve just seen. The fact is that however brightly performed and clearly spoken and ably translated (all of which apply here), Greek drama requires a bit of work on the part of the audience – careful attention at minimum, and even a degree of familiarity with the language and the story, if not the play itself.
Given these inherent difficulties, this evening of theater is a notable if incompletely realized achievement all around. While Progeny doesn’t entirely succeed on its own, the combined production is a worthy effort, and it’s a pleasure to see a colorful, fully dramatized, and relatively authentic (though maskless!) production of such an iconic classic as Antigone.