Adapted and Directed by Walter Stump,
University of Southern Maine,
Gorham, Maine, U.S.A.
November 9-20, 1994
Reviewed by Assunta Kent
University of Southern Maine
Playwright and theatre historian Walter Stump's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone shifts from ancient Meso-America to a present-day Latin-American dictatorship and back in an attempt to underscore the universality of myth across history and cultures. This concept inspired powerful spectacle: the rhythmic pulse of drums beneath a plaintive flute, Mayan headdresses atop masked faces, and a monumental temple facade drew spectators into a mythic world. If the drumming sometimes overpowered the chorus and the masks cooled empathy for the main characters, many audience members found the Pre-Columbian ambiance majestic, mystical, almost hypnotic.
The Act I, Scene 4 shift to a modern military regime (with all actors in jungle-green uniforms complete with scarves and berets) focused attention on contemporary applications of Sophocles' dramatic explorations of the difficulty of ethical governance. Within this modern frame, Creon is now the General and his son, Haimon, a subordinate officer in a fascistic 'revolutionary' government. The 'commanding' relationship of General Creon to Lieutenant Haimon heightened awareness of the peculiarly public/private nature of conflict within ruling houses. Similarly, 'Father' Teiresias' mixture of praise and admonition for Creon and his offer to bury Polyneices in an obscure corner of the churchyard re-emphasized the age-old political compromises made in private between Church and State in their joint capacity as 'shepherds of the people.' When pragmatic diplomacy fails, Teiresias is forced to threaten Creon with the wrath of the gods. Creon's declaration of his disbelief in supernatural powers cues a tempestuous response (from drums and lights) during which Teiresias is transformed into a primal shaman in full Pre-Columbian regalia. After his fall, Creon too is enshrouded in his Mayan robes and headdress. The production ends with Creon, knife in hand, framed between the heavy monumental doors of the temple.
The Mayan temple setting (designed by Charles Kading) provided numerous playing levels between the heavy carved doors at the top and a cavernous opening downstage center, through which the sentry and Antigone eventually exit. Sue Picinich's royal costumes were based on Pre-Columbian anthropological drawings and codexes, while the chorus' costumes incorporated Guatemelan fabrics and patterns. The masks worn by all characters in the ancient setting emphasized their iconic status, but impeded diction and cast shadows suggestive of fu man chu mustaches (particularly disconcerting on Antigone and Ismene). Lights (by Alfred Fauver), live music, and selective use of stage smoke enhanced the mystery and power of the ancient gods.
Guy Durichek portrayed Creon as a fearsome demi-god in ancient times and as an increasingly hubristic and fallible revolutionary general as the play progressed. In order to establish Antigone's commitment to a moral cause, Jenn Boislard sometimes pushed too hard vocally and gesturally. Although actors practiced with rehearsal masks, they were not coached to work with the appearance of their masks but tried to push through them. The antic sentry (David Moisan) lent comic relief and insight into the people's growing qualms about the practical and moral ramifications of Creon's decree. The chorus was divided along gender lines with two leaders, John Blanchette and Wendy Getchell (who turned in an especially strong performance). However, for most audience members, Stump' s emphasis on divisions between the he-gods and she-gods, and between male and female chorus members, added one too many themes to his already complicated allegory about legal versus moral law in present and past tyrannies.
Unfortunately for historically astute audience members, this adaptation also inadvertently highlighted the cultural specificities and consequent incompatibilities between Athenian deals and ideals and those of contemporary Latin America military states. Although he did not say so in his brief Director's Note, I believe the adaptor/director also intended to criticize the tendency for militant revolutions to devolve into dictatorships (Creon's Thebes/Castro's Cuba) which in turn spawn 'anarchist' enemies of the state (Antigone/post-1959 Cuban dissidents). However, the specificity of costumes (both Pre-Columbian and contemporary military dress) and of 'Spanish' dialects in Stump's production resulted in an unconscious representation of ethnocentric stereotypes of a 'fascist-prone' Latin America resistant to the admonitions and 'good example' of the U.S., as self-proclaimed torchbearer of Greek democracy. Thus Stump's well-meaning jab at autocracy reinscribes an unthinkingly imperialistic belief in the U.S. as the best of all possible governments and colludes in the continuing cover-up of U.S. interference in Latin American governments and support for totalitarian regimes. Even for those less sensitive to 'New World' politics, the implied conceptual parallels between, for example, modern revolutionary ideals and Athenian democracy are unnecessarily confusing.
Assunta Kent is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Southern Maine.