Antigone at A Noise Within, and La Mélancolie des Dragons at REDCAT
By Myron Meisel
Antigone as Kim Davis? Heroism Upside Down
Thanks to the sort of media consumers support and the devices that predetermine our forms of communication, it’s become rare, if not impossible, to argue in a constructive fashion. One of the most piquant old-fashioned charms that the theater can provide is an occasion for shared discourse. Audience, authors and players can partake in a conversation, a shared experience of exchanging ideas. It may be quaint, yet it offers a chance not merely to engage in invective but to move forward, together, even if to differing conclusions.
So it is piquantly paradoxical that such a determined ironist as Jean Anouilh (Becket, Waltz of the Toreadors, The Lark), the most commercially and critically successful French playwright internationally immediately following the Second World War, now can be seen to exemplify some of the pitfalls of logical colloquy.
His adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone (1943), pointedly written during the Nazi Occupation of France as a brief for uncompromising resistance (yet sufficiently “apolitical” in its even-handed presentation of irreconcilably opposed viewpoints) that the French Vichy government nevertheless sanctioned its performance. This made Anouilh’s worldwide reputation. A lesser artist than his contemporaries Camus or Sartre, Anouilh further developed the artifice of his inspirations, Girardoux and Pirandello, until his feints at meta-theatricality were shunted aside from the more visionary absurdism of Ionesco and Beckett, in a sense a Gallic counterpart to, say, England’s Terence Rattigan.
In a world premiere translation and adaptation by director (and longtime A Noise Within artist) Robertson Dean, nimbly fashioned for contemporary ears and considerably less stilted than the text used for countless collegiate productions during the play’s quarter century vogue, Anouilh’s Antigone raises a host of nagging questions and conundrums that the author (and perhaps also the adaptor) never anticipated.
The daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, Antigone (Emily James, appreciably more youthful than Katherine Cornell, who originated the role on Broadway) represents an absolutist adherence to principle, founded on the religious belief of her time that women’s dual duties were to give birth and to bury the dead to save their souls from endless wandering. Polynices had rebelled against his brother Etiocles, who had agreed to alternate annually with him as King of Thebes, only to renege. After they slew one another on the battlefield, regency devolved to their reluctant uncle, Creon (Eric Curtis Johnson), who decrees that because of his insurgency, Polynices’s body must lie prey to the animals, and any disobedience of his own authority will be punishable by death.
The action begins compellingly with Antigone’s proclamation of defiant conviction, from which she never wavers, and also insists upon the necessity of her own execution. Creon, the prototypical reasonable man (and perhaps the easiest character in dramaturgy with whom to identify), seeks to cover up her transgression and spare her, pointing out the inherent absurdity of her devotional commitment, only to be out-maneuvered at every turn by Antigone’s steadfast determination to fulfill her moral obligations and suffer her fate.
Here’s the rub, and for me it was critically decisive: Antigone’s justifications for her beliefs may provide a principled basis for resistance to oppressive authority, against collaboration and for fundamental liberty of conscience, but as applicable as they may have been as a parable for refusal of Nazi tyranny, they uncannily also precisely mirror the heinous positions of a Kim Davis, insisting on the holiness of her sacrifice for the primacy of her own personal beliefs over the dictates of the State.
Admittedly, this flies in the face of millennia of admiration for Antigone’s nobility, but such has become the topsy-turvy hurly-burly of our own public discourse. Indeed, through the lens of the moment, this Antigone inadvertently reinforces the perception that stubbornness always seeks refuge in the cloak of faith and uncompromising adherence to a belief irrespective of its irrational and destructive results.
So my reaction to her heroism was decidedly muted, even antagonistic, certainly nothing that could reasonably have been expected. It’s admittedly confusing, since she also fits the template for the implacable efficacy of non-violent protest. Creon, himself doomed to be a victim of his own intractable demand for a consistent projection of political expediency, rationalizes himself into untenable disaster, feeling forced into capitulating to Antigone’s powerful quest for martyrdom, in his contrastingly stubborn determination.
What all these contradictions reveal about Anouilh is the shaky foundations of his presumptions of Olympian detachment, the ability to play rhetorically with intellectual flexibility among points of view with inadequate fear of consequence. It’s a delusion that has proved very dangerous in the years since his play was written, and represents a less discerning vision than that of Sophocles, who eschews academic rectitude for a more savage concept of tragedy. Among the modern revisionist takes on the Antigone fable, I much prefer Brecht’s harder-edged detachment, adapting Hölderlin’s translation from the Greek, dextrously rendered in a splendid English version by the late Judith Malina, a more challenging and gnarly rendition far too rarely produced.
I’ve been remiss in failing to discuss this generally alert revival, with a most unaffected Antigone for all her arrogant humility, and a frustrated Creon ever ready to reposition himself for effective compromise, betrayed by his male supposition that problems exist to be solved. Inger Tudor’s one-woman chorus makes a declamatory marvel of narrative conjuration, in essence pleading the case for compelling our imagination to the material. And yet again, Jenny Foldenauer’s costuming resourcefully expresses alterations of character: Antigone manages at least three changes of wardrobe in the early going, all in unprepossessing earth-tones that still subliminally suggest her inner turmoil with nearly invisible modesty.
PoMo Posturing in Dragons
On the opposite end of the spectrum of French theater, Philippe Quesne’s acclaimed, long-touring 2008 performance piece, La Mélancolie des Dragons finished a sold-out three performance run at REDCAT last week to an enthusiastic response. I found it precious to a fault, affectedly unassuming and willfully naïve in its calculated faux spontaneity. It parlays remnants of hippie sentimentality into tableaux of post-modern posturing.
A Volkswagen towing a trailer is stranded on dark, snowy wastes as the vehicle’s occupants remain inside, listening to music on the car radio. They look like a long-in-the-tooth hair metal band on the road, but appearances are meant to deceive, as these AC/DC devotees are travelling players of a different ilk, exhibitors of tawdry tricks of magical imagination, a carnival of elementary wonders. (The Volkwagen as an emblem of road authenticity evoked some caustic derision unanticipated earlier in the production’s history.)
A bicyclist in the wilderness arrives to diagnose the defective motor part and call in for a replacement that will take a week to arrive. The eager troupe tantalizes her with their paltry gestures of practical visual effects (it eventually builds up to smoke machines and large inflated canvases), scene setters of ludicrously simple legerdemain intended to inspire childlike bemusement and not a little audience delight in its own superior laughter.
It tends to play out like a theatrical equivalent of a deadpan Aki Kaurismäki movie: mannered guilelessness elaborated with one foot in the flea circus and another in high artsy, self-aware ingenuousness. It’s either experienced as charming phantasmagoria with references to Artaud or twee affectless pretense. Quesne certainly has a style and knows what he is doing, and I’d concede some value to his privileging the mechanical and artisanal over the digital and corporate. Yet in its deliberate and unconvincing innocence, it seemed to touch a yearning nerve in its audience for a lost purity the show invokes yet cannot incarnate.
Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, Sunday October 4 at 2 & 7pm, Saturday October 24, 2 & 8 p.m.; Thursday, October 29, 7:30 p.m., Sun., November 8, 2 & 8 p.m.; , Saturday November 14, 2 & 8 p.m.;, Thursday, November 19, 7:30 p.m., Friday, November 20, 8 p.m. (626) 356-3100 x1, www.anoisewithin.org Running time: 85 minutes
La Mélancolie des Dragons, The Theatre of Vivarium Studio at REDCAT (closed).