Antigone, the final installment of Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle translated by Nicholas Rudall, running at Court Theatre reminds us that the Greeks did not know the meaning of “a living room play.” I have spent the early part of the year in rehearsals for my own show, and not seeing many plays. But, if you read my review of The Gospel At Colonus, you know there’s nothing like a Black Greek Tragedy to get me into the streets and back to my other craft of criticism. I love them so much because Greek Tragedies were meant to hold multidisciplinary storytelling approaches such as music, movement, spectacle and text all at once.
This Greek polymathic, multilayered approach to storytelling is picked up by director Gabrielle Randle-Bent in the present day, as visual art, fashion, poetry, vocal arrangements and body percussion work together to give us the emotional experience of Antigone. There is so much to eat in this production. Antigone is a whole meal, and I commend Randle-Bent for serving it up. There are places where it can feel like I’m trying to swallow too much, at times I was frustrated – yet Antigone’s world is frustrating. To me, great art isn’t perfect, but it does make me think, and enjoy the process of wrestling with it and making meaning. I appreciate the risks taken in this production. Without them, I’d have nothing to write about.
The story of Antigone is a bloody, beating tale of retribution, adoration, love, and cowardice. It is deftly translated by Nicholas Rudall, and the language feels so present, the tragedy is in the room with us. Antigone, portrayed by Aeriel Williams with dignity and wit, is serving us militancy, face, and fashion. Raquel Adorno, costume designer, has dripped Antigone with pearls that represent purity but not innocence, and certainly not softness.
In the opening scene, Antigone appears in black and white, pearls studding her hair and long braids, with a floral bracelet. The bracelet is the only signature that betrays familial ties with her sister, Ismene (Ariana Burks), who is draped in a gauzy dream of a floral dress. As Antigone does Ismene’s hair, she plucks the flowers from her wrist, tying her innocence into Ismene’s hair, locking it away forever safely with her sister.
Watching Williams inhabit this role for four years has been truly engrossing, as Antigone is a role that is mainly driven by substance, not text, until we get to this final chapter of the series. Audiences have been able to watch the same actor her grow from a girl at the mercy of her father’s mistakes in Oedipus Rex, to the young woman that guides him through the end of the life in Gospel at Colonus, to the wise woman accepts her own death in the name of civic justice. She has gotten to do so alongside her sister, Ariana Burks as Ismene, whose beautiful singing voice and graceful portrayal has also anchored the series.
One of the most terrifying moments in The Gospel at Colonus, is the curse that Oedipus places on his sons, Polynices and Eteocles. In response to their competing bids for the throne, he tells Polynices all his sons will have of the kingdom of Thebes, is just enough room to die in.
We find Antigone on the heels of this horrific outcome, both brothers slain at the hand of each other as her father had decreed. The slick and softly terrifying Creon, played by Timothy Edward Kaine, is now the ruler of Thebes. It doesn’t seem to be a happy place, and most of Creon’s constituents seem absolutely terrified of him. None moreso than the poor Watchman Who Becomes Messenger (a comedic and deft Julian Parker). There is no one more poised to play the messenger you don’t want to hear from in a Black feminist play than Julian Parker. Every word is delivered with a bashful flick of dreadlocks, or an explosive boyish excuse, that suits the drama of the Greeks. Parker’s portrayal gives a refreshing amount of animation that is turned on its head for a simplified, elevated, deliberately torturous telling of the death of Antigone.
Sophocles, through his text, reminds us that there is simply no use in looking away from tragedy. There is no hiding your sight from the brutality of the world lest you choose to blind yourself as Oedipus did. There is no avoiding your ancestors’ transgressions, nor any way to escape the consequences of the actions you have wrought. Antigone is a play for today’s world, so blighted and bloated with violence.
Polynices’ death can represent the ways that humans can go against the laws of nature and hurt each other beyond reason, and in this case, beyond death. It was hard for me not to think about Palestine, and the differing levels of response each of us have to the conflict in Gaza. There are those of us determined to protect the democracy at any cost, like Creon. There are those of us, like Ismene, who are filled with love and the desire for continuation without the constitution to fight. There are those of us having difficult, intergenerational conversations and choosing our lovers, our futures over our histories like Haimon (the poetic and determined Matthew C. Yee).
Then there are the watchers. The sorcerers, those who observe the turning of the tides and warn against the evil we can promote amongst ourselves. The ground is laid by priestess/poet Demophilus (Daniella Davis), and their apprentice in conjure Euboule (Cage Sebastian Pierre). Together, they are the poets, representing divine African masculine and feminine, like twin gods Mawu and Lisa of Dahomey. Pierre is an explosive performer in his own right, Chicago theatre fans have seen him perform very muscular and poetic text with vigor in the past. Here he leaves space for the feminine energy in the show without minimizing his own talents, a tempering I appreciated. This made way for the razing fire that is Danielle Davis’ as Demophilus, deliverance personified.
Stomping, saluting, shouting, and grooving, the poets held the rhythm and the frame of Antigone, draped in Black and metallic clothing, cloaking either side of the stage as they observed the action. Tiresias (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is tenderly guided to Creon by the apprentice Euboule, where she delivers a thundering, theatrical and poetic prophecy that invoked an ovation the night I attended.
Much of this play feels like it’s happening in artistic vignettes, which I thought was interesting, even if I loved some of them more than others. There is a moment between Haimon and Antigone that involves quite a lot of lace and a sweet movement sequence. The entrance into this moment, and the exit out of it are the stuff of genius so I won’t spoil them, but in the actual scene the props interrupted the intimacy of the moment for me. It created a barrier of shadow between audience and performer that I’m not sure was effective emotionally, though it was very beautiful aesthetically.
By contrast, there is a moment of complete darkness. I mean DARKNESS. I think this is so wise for a few reasons. Randle-Bent has made a lot of aesthetic choices so you can feel a bit overloaded visually by the production, and this is one of the most plot-forward moments in the play. You have to emotionally drop into this scene, or the play does not work, period. Then there’s a gorgeous slow fade into just enough light to see by, artistically rendered by lighting designer Keith Parham. The other reason I thought this was brilliant was that some of our favorite moments from theatre in antiquity happen offstage, or are only heard. Think – Madea murdering her children, which is emulated in Macbeth – in both cases we only hear the events. It felt like a salute to the genre, and as a person who adores the classics and experimental theatre in equal measure, I absolutely loved it.
Gabrielle Randle-Bent is an artist of exquisite taste, who has corralled Court’s cavalcade of classic designers to create one of the most aesthetically intriguing pieces I’ve seen in a good while. The costume design by Raquel Adorno, when presented in collaboration with John Culbert’s sculptural triumph of a set, is breathtaking work.
The sound design is also exquisite. I can’t prove it, but I think sound designer Willow James mic’d the walls, that’s how complete the sound design is. The actors used this to great success, and combined with the creative use of handheld microphones to manipulate sound, was an excellent addition to the otherworldliness of the show.
The Oedipus cycle at Court Theatre began in the 2019-2020 season, when Gabrielle Randle-Bent Associate Directed Oedipus Rex with outgoing Artistic Director Charlie Newell. Randle-Bent has directed, to my knowledge, less than five plays as lead director in Chicago. As a director myself, I need to point out how impressive this production of Antigone is if I am correct. Black women don’t get the chance to fully helm productions as often as we should, and folks don’t realize that is how directors practice because there is no laboratory for us. For this to be within her first ten productions to me, is a very impressive standard of work. It’s very cohesive, and I’m excited to see what other concepts come from her brain.
Antigone is running at Court Theatre, just extended through March 2nd!
Bias Alert: I was the Associate Producer at Court in the 2019-2020 Season.
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Tiresias, a prophet – Cheryl Lynn Bruce
Ismene, sister of Antigone – Ariana Burks
Demophilus, a poet – Danielle Davis
Creon, king of Thebes – Timothy Edward Kane
Watchman Who Becomes A Messenger, a guard – Julian Parker
Euboule, a poet – Cage Sebastian Pierre
Antigone, sister of Eteocles and Polyneices – Aeriel Williams
Haimon, son of Creon, and Antigone’s lover – Matthew C. Yee
Directed by Associate Artistic Director Gabrielle Randle-Bent
Translated by Founding Artistic Director Nicholas Rudall
Scenic Design – John Culbert U.S.A.
Costume Design – Raquel Adorno U.S.A.
Lighting Design – Keith Parham U.S.A.
Sound Design and Composition – Willow James
Vocal Arrangements – Janine Stroemer-Cheeks
Additional Composition and Arrangements – Danielle Davis, Cage Sebastian Pierre
Physical Content Consultant – Sheryl Williams
Wig and Hair Design – Reuben D. Echoles
Dramaturgy and Additional Concept Development – Abhi Shrestha
Casting – Becca McCracken C.S.A.
Production Stage Manager – Kate Ocker
Assistant Stage Manager – Katie Moshier