The promotional material for the University Theatre’s Mainstage production Antigone 2.0 assures you that “this is not your grandmother’s Antigone.” Indeed. Presumably if this were your grandmother’s Antigone, there would be a place for your grandmother to sit down. But part of the conceit of Antigone 2.0 is that it is “standing room only” — meaning that the audience is supposed to stand throughout the production, and perhaps mill around so as to get a better look at the action, which occurs throughout the black box theatre, and be told occasionally by the cast members to get out of the way.
The twenty or so undergraduates, reporters, and photographers who attended Tuesday’s dress rehearsal were initially somewhat flummoxed by the arrangement. Could you really go stand in the middle of the stage? (Yes.) Could you really walk right up to the cast members, and pretend-stomp on the dead bodies? (Yes.) Could you climb on the set? (No.)
The first thing you’ll notice — other than the lack of seating — when you enter Thayer Theatre is the body bags on the ground. Their placement, and number, may be in some ways the most successful and inspired part of this production. Antigone takes place in the midst of a civil war in Thebes, a war in which the brothers Polyneices and Eteocles are killed fighting on opposite sides. Those of us who have not been in battle elsewhere do not realize always just what war means: dead bodies. Bodies that must be dealt with. The soul may only weigh twenty-one grams, but the human body left behind weighs considerably more, and it takes up space. The play opens, as the audience files in, with cast members in ersatz Hazmat suits removing the bodies from the stage — or rather taking them from the piles in the middle of the stage to piles on the outskirts. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, and those piles of body bags — and the “Move out of the way!” cries of the workers — are a powerful way into the world of the play.
Sadly, that world is largely shattered when the first characters, Ismene and her sister Antigone, appear on stage. The translators updated the language to include contemporary speech patterns, many of them, as the 2.0 would suggest, borrowed from the culture of the internet. (“Not. Good. Enough.” Antigone tells her sister at one point.) But the story of the play does not exist in the world of the internet. It exists, by necessity, in a world where people believe in the gods, in rituals, in prophets, in Hades both as a person and a physical place. Our world of megachurches and monotheism doesn’t fit with the dark, multifaceted nature of the religion of the ancient Greeks. Antigone 2.0 thus suffers from a disconnect — Antigone and Ismene fighting like typical 21st century siblings at one moment, and then invoking the law of the gods versus the law of the land at the next.
The translators also made no attempt to update the imagery in the play to match the scenery they created. It’s hard to imagine wild beasts feasting on carrion in the post-industrial wasteland of the set, yet the references to birds and beasts are still there.
Still, there are some powerful elements to this production. The set design, while it often doesn’t fit the language, is nonetheless eerie in its own right, lending a foreboding that eventually even quelled the giggles of the audience members in attendance who were wandering around the stage. The cast makes full use of the space in the black box theatre, both horizontally and vertically, and the cast is wonderfully dynamic in their movements. The scene of the soldiers dancing to electric violin and drumbeats thumped out on five gallon plastic buckets nearly steals the whole show, and those cast members who fight and die do so with admirable verisimilitude.
And the ending is affecting, standing as a testament to Aristotle’s long-ago observation that plot is the most important element of tragedy. The play, regardless of language or interpretation, makes its inexorable way to the conclusion, and regardless of whether you read the events as personal or political, they cannot help but affect you. The final scenes, wherein a messenger relates what has happened to Creon, while characters say their own lines in chorus, is particularly moving.
The “2.0” in this production is, ultimately, as much window dressing as it is when appended to most things. There’s some current lingo thrown in, and the speeches have been compressed a bit as well as updated, but in the end, perhaps inevitably, this is still an Antigone that your grandmother will recognize. But don’t take her to see the show unless you’re fairly certain she’s cool with standing for an hour.
Photos courtesy of University of Iowa News Service.
Antigone 2.0 premieres on Thursday, March 3 at 8 p.m. at the David Thayer Theatre in the UI Theatre Building. Additional performances will take place at 8 p.m. on March 4 and 5 and 10 through 12 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 6. The play was adapted from Sophocles’s Antigone by UI faculty Carol MacVey and UI Playwrights Workshop student Jen Silverman. Carol MacVey directs.