By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
An MFA-program earnestness permeates Forum Theatre's staging of "Antigone." Sensibly arranged on a trim Grecian set, the actors do their darnedest to channel the play's philosophizing and to give the plot's grim patterns the requisite grandeur. But their painstaking effort always looks like just that: effort.
Under the orderly direction of Michael Dove, the performers never elevate the Jean Anouilh play past the nose-to-the-grindstone stage, to where the scenes might live and breathe. Admittedly, Anouilh's 1944 script is mannered to begin with, and Jeremy Sams's translation, used in this production, doesn't mellow out the formality.
A revisionist take on Greek myth, the play reprises the familiar story of Antigone, Oedipus's strong-willed daughter. As many of us remember from reading Sophocles in high school, Antigone wins herself a death sentence by defying the Theban ruler, Creon, and burying her brother. But in Anouilh's ironic version of the tale, traditional notions of duty and heroism crumble away: The title character turns out to be a dyspeptic self-aggrandizer, while Creon is an eminently reasonable ruler who's anxious to spare Antigone's life.
Contextualizing the story in a flagrantly literary way is a character called Chorus (or Prologue), who comments on the action and propounds on the nature of tragedy. The genre "is a well-oiled machine in perfect working order," this figure asserts in one particularly memorable speech. "It's neat, tragedy, neat and tidy. And relaxing, in a funny sort of way."
In Forum's intermissionless production -- the opener to a season provocatively titled "God. Man. The Devil." -- Fiona Blackshaw delivers the Chorus speeches with careful matter-of-factness, as if she were addressing an attentive conservatory class. As the eponymous Theban princess, Katie Atkinson is suitably vehement and willful, and her pale, tense facial expressions underscore the play's existentialist tendencies; Antigone is deliberately choosing her own death, but the character always feels like a dramatic device.
Nigel Reed brings more naturalness and stage presence to the role of Creon, a clear-eyed fellow who feels that kingship is "just a job," not a road to glory. Although stern, this Creon is genial enough to uncork the play's fraught political subtext. Is Antigone wholly in the wrong? Should a ruler put the end before the means? Is there a necessary cost to social order? Needless to say, these questions are all too resonant in our pre-election season.
Among the performers shouldering smaller roles, Lisa Lias supplies a vivid portrait of Antigone's anxious nurse. But it's Parker Dixon as Creon's son (and Antigone's fiance), Haemon, who best succeeds in turning his character into a human being: He listens and responds to Atkinson's Antigone in a manner that seems truly affectionate and spontaneous.
The action plays out methodically in front of the set's Attic columns, with their severe right angles and two-toned brown color scheme intensifying the story's bleakness (Jon Boags and Carleen Troy are the set designers). Yvette M. Ryan's modern costumes, such as Creon's hideous brown suit -- no fashion plate, this guy! -- are suitable reflections on the characters' personalities.
Unlike some previous Forum productions, "Antigone" contains no multimedia elements, if you don't count the occasional film-noir shadows cast by Paul Frydrychowski's lighting, or the colors that sometimes seep onto a screen at the back of the stage.
Indeed, it would probably be a mistake to gussy up the scenes with technological bells and whistles, given that Anouilh's drama glories in starkness. A little more soulfulness from the Forum performers, on the other hand, might have given that austere message more punch.
Antigone, by Jean Anouilh, translated by Jeremy Sams. Directed by Michael Dove; fight choreography, Cliff Williams III. With Betsy Rosen, Megan Reichelt, Lee Liebeskind and others. 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Dec. 30 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit http://www.forumtd.org.