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Nashville Scene Do the Right Thing

"Antigone" about act of defiance.

By Lisa A. Dubois

APRIL 27, 1998:  From the opening moments of Jean Anouilh's Antigone, everybody in the theater knows the outcome Antigone, a healthy adolescent, is going to die. The audience knows it. The supporting characters know it. And, better than anyone else, Antigone knows it. Having gotten that little issue out of the way, the playwright forces his audience to analyze the complexities of the process by which that happens.

"This play is about the act of defiance alone," explains David Quicksall, who is directing a production of Antigone that runs this Friday and Saturday at War Memorial Auditorium; the staging is a collaboration between Nashville Shakespeare Festival and Barry Scott Productions. "Not only is the act of defiance one of a subject against a king, but a woman against a man, youth against age, right against wrong."

Given the ground rule that nobody messes with destiny, the audience is required to find consolation in this very dilemma: Are people noble or foolish if, fully aware of the consequences, they make unpopular choices? Should we admire or scorn those who accept personal responsibility in situations where they know the outcome will be futile?

Adapted from Sophocles' classic Greek rendering of the same legend, Anouilh first presented his modernized take on Antigone in 1944, during the Nazi occupation of France. Seen as a placation of the German fascists residing in Paris, the production received a mixed reception among the French, and a decidedly cool reception when it played in New York later that year. In more recent times, however, Anouilh's absurdist translation has grown in popularity.

Following the tradition of classic Greek theater, the chorus is used as a central vehicle for imparting information. In this case, one person, David Alford, comments on the action while detaching himself from both the drama and the viewers. He is the consummate third-party witness, the ultimate objective reporter.

The saga goes like this: After Antigone's brothers Eteocles and Polynices kill each other in a battle over their mutually inherited throne, King Creon of Thebes chooses to honor Eteocles with a full burial and leave Polynices in the field to rot. Antigone, who is betrothed to Creon's son Haemon, confronts her future father-in-law and insists that Polynices also receive a proper burial; otherwise, his spirit will be doomed to eternal damnation. Creon refuses, so Antigone buries Polynices herself.

When a messenger reports the teenager's brazen act, Creon tries every tactic possible--short of leaving Polynices' corpse underground--to mollify the situation. But Antigone is absolutely unwilling to compromise. Since the standard penalty for crossing the king is death, Creon decides to entomb the impertinent girl in a cave, expecting her to meet her demise slowly while gasping for air. Ever defiant, Antigone chooses not to suffocate and hangs herself instead.

Says Denice Hicks, who plays the title role, "This play shows it's not how you die, but how you live. When we find her in the beginning, Antigone is just as confused by what's happening as everyone else. But through the course of that 90 minutes [of the play], she finds her voice. I think she's a hero because she stands up for what she believes and makes strong choices, saying, 'No, I will not compromise.' Creon plays politics, but she [refuses to play] the games of society."

Barry Scott, who portrays the Theban sovereign, is more sympathetic toward the king. He argues that Creon was once a lover of poetry and music, but he has had to forego his own pleasures to tend to the more important job of running the country. (Didn't Bill Clinton recently make this exact same comment?) Although Creon knows that both Eteocles and Polynices were tyrants and traitors, he makes one of them a hero in an attempt to pacify his political colleagues. Instead of solving the problem, however, this edict creates even bigger issues.

Denice Hicks and Barry Scott in Antigone Photo by Susan Adcock

"Creon makes a decision because he thinks it's the right thing to do, but it causes him great pain," Scott says. "But someone's got to stand in the void and keep things moving."

Quicksall visually frames this presentation with an eclectic set design. Classic Greek motifs refer to Sophoclean times, while elegant touches of 1940s Paris place the show in the context of its original staging.

The play's ambiguity is its single most fascinating element, muses Quicksall, and one that he hopes will appeal particularly to Generation Xers. "In all these TV news analysis shows, Generation X kids are worried about their place in the world and their insignificance in an overbearing society," he says. "The message of this play is that those feelings are as timeless as anything. The struggle has always gone on and always will."

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