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Difficult Child 

Brecht's updating of Sophocles' tragic heroine Antigone is a robust primer in civil disobedience

It's a danger of a drifting time: Individual acts of conscience or political resistance are too easily dismissed as irrelevant, or even cliché. One brilliant afternoon late last fall, I overheard a pair of would-be ironists quietly call a group of peace protesters "quaint" and "very '60s," before moving on in distaste.

In a culture with an attention deficit as finely cultivated as ours, people freely discard all but the most immediate causes and effects. WTO protesters, students in makeshift tent villages and people holding cardboard signs against the war are called quixotic by those who missed Henry Kissinger's late admission that protests at home were the only thing that kept the United States from going nuclear in Vietnam.

It's useful, then, in a slipping time, to be reminded that the roots of civil disobedience run far deeper than the antiwar and civil rights efforts of the 20th century, Thoreau's famous essay of 1849, or the founding of the republic. Sophocles' Antigone is a dramatic, open debate about conflicting allegiances to conscience, family and the state. It's also a primer in civil disobedience now nearly two-and-one-half millennia old.

Bertolt Brecht's adaptation is one of two major versions to stem from World War II. In this joint effort from StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and Wordshed Productions, Brecht's version is decidedly more minimal and visceral than Jean Anouilh's 1943 script, written and staged during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Where Anouilh's debate is more intricate and robust, it still pales in comparison with Brecht's blunt imagery of war.

Kreon brags that his soldiers did not deny their bloodthirsty weapons' "repeated refreshment" before exulting, "Look over there where their city once stood! There you'll see dogs with shining faces." And where Sophocles' second ode began, "Numberless are the world's wonders, but none as wonderful as man," from a postwar vantage point, Brecht's dark chorus asserts the inverse: "There is much that is monstrous. But nothing more monstrous than man."

The gray columns, floor and walls of Sonja Drum's set suggest the smoky residue of a city after a firestorm. In a wartime Germany preface, Rivka Eisner's and Georgia Martin's characters seek shelter in a burned-out building, before Martin morphs into a cabaret chanteuse in black leather and red fishnet to lip synch torch songs to cruel soldiers.

Martin then brings an enviable, brittle intensity to the title role, while Bob Barr makes Kreon, her nemesis, an aging member of a corrupt politburo--but one whose threat is not always that believable.

Director Derek Goldman splices in the trappings of Brecht's epic theater, including onstage tech. But the general lack of impact from ironic, stagey pop music slam segues raises the question, is it still possible to out-Brecht popular culture? Similarly, an excerpted section from Michel de Certeau's World Trade Center essay never fulfills its intertextual promise, and the choreography of Eisner's arrival as a messenger with disastrous news seems sabotaged when transparently extended to time out with an accompanying Bob Dylan song.

Eisner gives her dual roles integrity, as does Paul Ferguson, as a reptilian commander and Tiresias. With a good performance here as the fearful Ismene, Emily Ranii adds to an already impressive resume. Jerry Reid gives a stilted reading as the tyrant's son, Hamon, while Gene Goldstein-Plesser is notable as Tiresias' young guide.

Antigone's narrow bandwidth here is noticeable, but it can be attributed as much to Brecht's adaptation as anything else. In Anouilh, Antigone experiences moments of doubt--a luxury never afforded her by Brecht. Interestingly, for a writer as allergic to iconic paragons of virtue as Brecht was, his Antigone is never tempted, and never wavers. In this production she comes off as rigid in her path as Kreon is in his: a relatively de-dimensionalized creature of conscience--and compulsion. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

  • "Antigone" at UNC-CH is a robust primer in civil disobedience.

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