The Burial at Thebes
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 7, 2006
"I'll flush 'em out," he says.
"Whoever isn't for us
Is against us in this case."
Who is the "he" being quoted? "This is law and order / In the land of good King Creon," speaks Antigone, just before she repeats his latest edict: he has decreed that Polyneices, who led an invasion on the kingdom of Thebes after being cheated out of his rightful claim to rule there, must be denied proper burial; Creon has further pronounced that anyone who violates that edict will be killed. Antigone is Creon's niece and Polyneices's sister. What law must she follow here—one that she knows to be wrong and arbitrary, laid down largely for political expediency; or one that she knows to be just and righteous, though it may cost her her life?
Such is the problem at the heart of The Burial at Thebes, a new version of Sophocles's Antigone by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It's a story that's thousands of years old, one that has captured the attention of great writers from the time of the Greeks to the present day, and in its vast resonances it's easy to understand why. Two great proud spirits sit at its center: on the one hand, there's Creon, restoring (as Heaney has it) "law and order" to a troubled and fearful nation; on the other, there's Antigone, defiantly nullifying Creon's law so that she can stay true to her principles. What's great about this story—and Heaney, even with the obvious political spin that he's adopted, is ultimately faithful to it—is the fact that both chorus and audience are left to decide for themselves who's in the right here. I suspect that Heaney may be hoping to push us to a middle ground somewhere between his two grand antagonists' points of view.
J. Scott Reynolds has staged the piece with wondrous simplicity for Handcart Ensemble in the professional New York premiere of this three-year-old work. On a set that's virtually bare (save for a wooden crate that serves as everything from throne to speaker's podium to makeshift gurney for the recently deceased), he re-tells the classic myth in timeless fashion. The most important design pieces are the masks (by Jonathan Becker), which are used in much the same way as we believe the Greeks themselves used them more than two thousand years ago, heightening the emotions and ideas of each major character. Becker's work here is magnificent, creating what amount to blank slates for the chorus (on which we can project our own faces, perhaps?), while abetting the actors beautifully in achieving the larger-than-life representations of the eternal, essential issues confronted in this play.
Those actors are led by Jane Pejtersen as Antigone, in a performance rooted in the political rather than the personal, so that her struggle is never of a princess fighting her uncle but rather of an ordinary person casting off her perceived powerlessness to assert her rights against oppression. The tragedy isn't Antigone's but everyone else's: how did things get to a place where the events depicted here could even happen?
Tom Knutson offers a powerful portrayal of Tiresias, the seer who had helped Creon realize his destiny in the first place, now rejected by the hubristic king when he prophesies results that Creon disagrees with. Adam Houghton is a sturdy, haughty Creon (though perhaps a bit young for the role); Ron Bopst is excellent as a guard and later a messenger, finding the natural comedy and tragedy in his everyman characters. Completing the ensemble are Matthew Herrick (Creon's son, Haemon), Elizabeth A. Davis (Antigone's sister, Ismene), and Susan Ferrara (Creon's wife, Eurydice); except for Houghton, all actors double as members of the chorus of Greek elders who watch and advise and gossip but never actually do anything. Reynolds seamlessly shifts members in and out of this group, reinforcing a concept of the chorus in this play as a generalized mass of anonymous citizens.
If audiences see themselves or their rulers in any of this—and they've been doing so for centuries; will we ever not?—then more to the good. Probably the most vivid reflection of the world we live in right now is the fact that The Burial at Thebes—an enormously resonant work on classic themes by one of the world's most esteemed writers—gets unveiled for New Yorkers not at Lincoln Center or some similar august cultural institution, but by a small but courageous indie theatre in a venue run by the Salvation Army; what does that say about our times? In any event, bravo to Reynolds and Handcart Ensemble for bringing this remarkable and relevant work of theatre to us; anybody who cares about great drama or the prospects for our political/social/cultural survival would do well to take this in.