There is a moment in Fusion Theatre’s production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (at Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre) when Creon says to Antigone “Don’t annihilate me with those eyes.” And indeed, Antigone’s unrelenting stare does seem to be annihilating him, as it’s been annihilating everyone. As Antigone, Eilin O’Dea motivates Creon’s line so well that it seems Anouilh has written it in response to the actress.
Anouilh’s play, as this production makes clear, is an important drama. Anouilh reworked Sophocles’ play keeping the ancient Greek names and keeping the action in Thebes. The characters, however, mention tobacco, blood tests, film and cars. The dissonance reminds us that Anouilh’s message of courage and moral responsibility is ageless.
Anouilh has created a raisonneur in a character called simply The Chorus. Tragedy, he tells us, “has nothing to do with melodrama”. “In tragedy, argument is gratuitous,” he says, but this is a very strange line; Antigone and Creon will soon have a discussion worthy of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw, however, might not agree with Anouilh’s high-mindedness. When Creon points out that there’s no point in burying her brother Polyneices (the crime she’s been arrested for), since the earth will only be removed, Antigone replies “What a person can do, a person ought to do.”
Indeed, Creon is more reasonable than Antigone, and while he makes some cogent points, Antigone’s steel gets the best of the argument. “Stop feeling sorry for me and do your job,” she says. She tells him she’s “speaking to you from a kingdom you cannot enter.”
But Anouilh creates a real person in Antigone, not merely a personification of morality. Indeed, at the end of the play she seems to recant, telling a guard to write a letter for her saying “It is terrible to die and I don’t even know what I’m dying for.” She changes her mind, though, and strikes the sentence from the letter.
And the script is poetic as well. Antigone speaks of “the nightbird that frightened me even when I couldn’t hear it.”
Fusion Theatre’s mission is to merge classical theatre with opera, and this production punctuates the play with five classical arias, mostly by Verdi, sung by four of the actors. The technique works very well. The songs create space in this dense hyper-intellectual play, giving us a respite from all the demands it puts on our reasoning brain.
Eilin O’Dea gives a superb performance as Antigone. Thin and nervous, she scratches her head desperately, as if doing so might relieve her of her burden. Paul Goodwin Groen, as well, gives a marvelous, complex performance as Creon. In fact, the entire cast is first-rate.
Ms. O’Dea directs the show, and she keeps it sharp and focused throughout. On her bare stage – there are only two stools on the stage – she seems to be showing us an existentialist minimalism. The staging strips drama to bare truth. She eschews theatricality and gives us a direct honesty.
Ms. O’Dea and Mr. Groen sing as well as they act. The other singers are Byron Singleto, who plays a guard, and Paulina Yeung, who plays a messenger, both very fine.
It’s jarring to hear the guards speak in cockney accents; they intrude on the play in a way the other actors’ British accents don’t. Nonetheless, this production is excellent, exquisite, a great success – and Congratulation to Fusion Theatre!