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It seems that the contemporary theatre, namely collegiate theatre, is in high pursuit of presenting classic works with a fresher appeal to audiences. Antigone, a fifth century BC play written by Sophocles, is well-known amongst theatre academics and perhaps advanced high school literature classes. But often, a work like this dissuades 21st century audiences from the theatre. The language is complex, the topics are heady, and though a modernized retelling could enliven such a work, where do we find room to tell new stories within a narrative that has been told and retold for centuries? The Passion of Antigona Perez by Luis Rafael Sánchez provides an answer to such a conundrum, fitting an ancient Greek narrative into a modern Latin America shattered by colonization and authoritarianism.
Antigona at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro tackles this challenge head on, exploring the conventions of a Greek drama through homage and deconstruction. The elements of physical theatre are essential to this production, at times appearing to be more of a modern dance piece than a play. There is a focus on grotesque movement throughout the show that both fascinated and confused the audience, who kept their eyes transfixed throughout the night. The set design by Dani Vanasse didn't allow us to look away. A production with such complex and intentional movement begs for in-the-round staging. In order to overcome this challenge, Vanasse placed a huge mirror fragment upstage center, facing down across the stage. This provided the audience with a nearly 360 look of all the center stage action. This choice was pure genius.
Director Robi Arce-Martinez has crafted extremely effective stage pictures through this medium, letting the audience into the narrative in a form of surveillance. The projections, designed by Rachel Lake, added a sense of place to the emptiness of the set. Typewritten messages, news broadcasts, and stained glass, all turned a blank canvas of mirrors and staircases into a juxtaposition of imprisonment and political excess. This spectacle occasionally got in the way of the story, particularly on the sound design end when jilting bumps and early entrances suddenly shifted the audience out of a powerful and focused moment. Opening night malfunctions are to be expected, however, and did not majorly detract from the more compelling moments of the show.
Strong performances from the principal cast further supported the production elements of the show. Most notably, Jailyn Feliz as the titular Antigona was a testament to ferocity and stamina. This actor maintained an unwavering, intense heart rate throughout the night that propelled the performance through nearly two hours of material. She found an equally-driven foe in Daniel Stargel's Creon, whose polished yet threatening exactitude was an interesting foil to Feliz's rawness. In the first third of the play, these two characters effectively alienate the audience from the story. I would also attribute this to the design choice of having Antigona open the show by speaking from behind a scrim. It seemed there was a veil separating us from the action, and truly, the heart of the story for this first section. However, we were invited in by the First Lady of the Republic, Brooklyn Levonas's Pilar Vargas. This haughty and subtly humorous character parted said veil and let the blood run into the audience. At her entrance, the production gained momentum and rarely let it drop. The Chorus of the show is not to be ignored either, their maintaining of continuous movement throughout the performance gave Antigona a soul. Their standalone moments were some of the weaker portions of the night, but as an ensemble, they were collaborative and illustrative of the abstracted pains of nationalism.
The Passion of Antigona Perez is a story that needs to be told in an America full of immigrants and refugees. This production at UNCG achieves just that, adding effective staging and gripping movement to the text, making it a living story. Audiences who attend should allow themselves to participate in the conversation that the production begins, and not let the grotesque or roughness around the edges scare them away.
UNCG's production of The Passion of Antigona Perez continues at the Taylor Theater through Saturday, February 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.