Cal Rep Delivers a Complicated and Haunting Retelling of “Antigone”

Playwright Paula Cizmar breathes new life into Socrates’ classical play with “Antigone X”

By Lilly Nguyen Culture Editor

Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Modern retellings of age-old stories are no strangers to the stage.

There is a unique timelessness to some narratives simply because they are tales universal to the human condition. They are stories of romance, comedy, tragedy and loss. They are experiences that shape us, that are as unyielding as human nature allows us to be. Greek lore finds itself at the crux of these reimaginings and such was the case with “Antigone X,” which had its Cal Rep debut last Friday night at the Theater Arts building.

Playwright Paula Cizmar’s “Antigone X” relies on the laurels of the classical play, placing the centuries-old story in refugee camps on the outskirts of Thebes.

Penned by Sophocles sometime before 441 B.C., “Antigone” is a tragedy that criticizes the often-arbitrary laws of man, which Sophocles argues are of lesser value than one’s own moral and personal obligations.

Playwright Paula Cizmar’s “Antigone X” relies on the laurels of the classical play, placing the centuries-old story in refugee camps on the outskirts of Thebes.

In “Antigone X,” Antigone (Dorthea Darby) loses both of her brothers in an unnamed war over birthright. Her uncle Creon (Tom Trudgeon) ascends the throne in their place. Creon expresses to his people that Eteocles, one of Antigone’s brothers, is to be buried with all the honors of a warrior. His brother, Polyneices, however, is to be considered a traitor and will be left to the carrion birds to devour. He announces that burying the body will be considered a crime. Antigone is indignant and against her sister Esme’s (Anna-Jane Murphy) concerns, she rises as an insurgent in the face of an authoritarian government that bears no sympathies for her or the others who suffer in its wake.

Trudgeon delivers a convincing and spectacular performance as the show’s antagonist, Creon, which in some ways reflects the opposite side of his performance as Mr. Jones in “Machinal” earlier this season. His lines are cruel and crass, but his tone and performance match it in such a way that audiences are left unsettled, if not deeply uncomfortable. His scene with Malachi Beasley, who plays Creon’s son Haemon, was phenomenal for both actors. The delivery of the lines and the fury with which they were spoken was amazing to watch, though one might have noticed there was quite a humorous amount of spit flung across the stage during the scene.

Other standout performances came from Kayla Manuel as Tiresias and Corduroy Chapman as Herm. Manuel deserves commending for her role as it required her to move about the stage with no visual aid. Stage choreography and directed movements were well-done, particularly when she responded to other actors who “grabbed” her and when Tiresias divined the fate of Thebes. Chapman’s stage choreography likewise added to the character and the overall construction of the production as his manic delivery of lines and nonsensical flailing offered a respite from the pseudo-Greek tragedy.

Leads Darby and Murphy also are deserving of credit, especially in their scenes together when they work to deliver a convincing and sincere representation of sisterhood and the love and fears that come with losing it.

Riddled with references to recent history — the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and the Holocaust — and allusions to the tragedy of Oedipus and his mother-wife Jocasta, “Antigone X” demands an informed audience able to understand its critiques on a more profound level.

It is a difficult play to watch. It bears an abstract dialogue and plays in metaphors of light versus dark. Some of its scenes can be disconcerting and the performances of some the production’s cast leave much to be desired in pivotal, plot-changing moments. It makes references to history, and Greek lore and the anachronisms that come about as a result are not lost on its audience.

It is difficult to watch, if only because you have to be “on” the entire time.

And at the same time? It isn’t.

Much of its plot remains the same. You don’t really need to have read or watched the original “Antigone” to understand what is happening. The tragedy begins at the death of Antigone’s brothers, then follows the thread of consequences before finally ending with the curse that King Creon’s hubris brought upon the city of Thebes, a response to his defiance against the gods.

Cizmar, however, elevates the role of the other women in the play to give them a voice against “baseless and nonsensical authoritarianism,” according to a Cal Rep press release.

Ismene, stylized as Esme in the production, is passive and subservient to the state, content to “live with shame” and to be invisible.

She expresses to her sister that their womanhood is a flaw in and of itself before at last denying her sister the aid she asks for. As women and as citizens, there is simply nothing they can do. Antigone rails against this, promising her sister and herself that she will obey her own personal beliefs and gods before obeying the decree of a man who inherits the throne only because her brothers cannot. Ismene seemingly disappears at the end of “Antigone,” as if her own existence was wiped away with the rest of the House of Oedipus.

Esme shares similar fears and concerns in “Antigone X,” initially refusing to aid Antigone in the burial of Polyneices until Antigone is captured by Herm, and then claiming she was complicit out of fear of being alone. She refuses to allow her sister to take the blame all upon herself, willing to take on death herself, although for different reasons than Antigone. She later takes on her sister’s mantle of rebellion, instigating a rallying call to all those in her company and telling the audience that in spite of Creon’s punishment by the gods, the story is yet to have truly ended.

Eurydice (Rachel Post) takes on a similarly “powerful” role, railing against the perceived gentle nature of her character in the classic. She is more sexual and more defiant, lashing out at both a guard and Creon. She does not die quietly at the palace after Haemon’s death. Instead, she takes the blade that took her son’s life and curses Creon’s name before dying in front of him herself.

At its heart “Antigone X” is a play about the place of women and femininity and the power to resist and reclaim that which belongs to them.

There is also something to be said about Tiresias, who is cursed to become a woman in “Antigone X.” In the original and in this reimagining, Tiresias is a blind prophet whose predictions are willfully dismissed by both kings Oedipus and Creon. Although his predictions are often horrifying, Tiresias, a figure of truth, remains resilient in the face of abuses hurled at him. Tiresias in “Antigone X” can be read symbolically as the silencing of women.

Although his predictions to date have been true, Creon willfully dismisses Tiresias’ claims. She is in no position to tell him what to do, perhaps reflective of the dismissal of women by those in power.

At its heart “Antigone X” is a play about the place of women and femininity and the power to resist and reclaim that which belongs to them.

It is a story about civil disobedience, written in direct response to the current administration.

At what point do we draw the line? At what point do we stand up? Who do we answer to in the end, our proverbial king or a higher authority within ourselves?

“Antigone X” will be playing through April 8 with shows at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There will be a show at 2 p.m. on Saturday that includes a discussion with playwright Paula Cizmar after the production. There will also be another matinee on Sunday. Tickets for students and faculty are $15; tickets for the general public are $20. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.