Saturday, October 31, 2009

How we remember

A friend in the theater recommended a new production of "Antigone" to me, saying it was the best thing she'd seen in a long time. I saw it this afternoon and I believe her. SITI Company's performance of the new version of "Antigone" by Irish playwright Jocelyn Clarke, directed by Anne Bogart, is a revelation. The brief run ends tomorrow, but one can hope it will return or tour. It's that good.

The set is nothing but a square of tables with chairs on diagonal on a bare black-sided stage; square, circular and parabolic pools of light and a nearly imperceptible soundscape make it feel like a world whose center is a conference - appropriate enough for a play which takes place in time of war, as the military leader decides how to deal with setbacks in Argos and rising dissent at home in Thebes, and, like everyone at the table, tries to wriggle free of the horrifying legacy of the house of Thebes. Periodically, one of the elders (played by Will Bond, facing us in the picture above) steps away from the table to face the audience and tells us one of the episodes of this awful history, starting with the rape of Europa. He starts the play this way:

How does it all begin? (pause)
How does it all begin? (pause)
How does it all begin? (pause)
It begins with a girl.
It begins with a bull...
(walks to another place facing the audience)
How does it all begin? (pause)
How does it all begin? (pause)
How does it all begin? (pause)
It begins with a daughter.
It begins with a war. ...

Amazingly, every iteration of the words "How does it all begin?" (and there are probably 15 in all) is different. The first is rhetorical, the second full of curiosity, the third full of dread, etc.

Once he tells one of the stories, its climax is always a moment where some victim - Europa, Chrysippus - accepts her/his awful fate, holds her/his tunic up to her/his chest (his hand makes an arc'ing movement as if rounding a pregnant belly), and the rest billows behind her/him like a purple sail. By the end, Antigone's story has joined this retelling.

This growing sense of the tragic past adds ever more complications to the war with Argos - why did it start? Whose war is it? But it also adds both depth and opacity to Antigone. Too easy just to say that she will do what's right and bury her brother Polyneikes despite Creon's command. It's not just about justice but about memory and identity. "How we remember is who we are," she says, she is her family or she is noone. And yet what is it to be the daughter of Oedipus, the descendant of all those bloody events we've heard about? When she declares to Creon "I'm not afraid to die," his response resonates: "Are you afraid to live?"

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