by Hugh Hunter
Now into its third full season at the historic Sedgwick Theater, Quintessence is currently staging a stunning revival of Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone” (1943), an adaptation of the great Sophocles tragedy.
It is the aftermath of civil war in Thebes. King Creon orders that the dead rebel Polynices be left to rot on the battlefield. But Polynices is Antigone’s brother; she defies Creon on grounds of religious piety and plots to arrange a burial.
Without changing the story’s main plot and denouement, Anouilh does radically change the play. The result at Quintessence is a production that owes as much to the humor of Moliere as it does to Sophocles.
One of Anouilh’s script revisions is the one-man Greek chorus. John Williams is charming and comical in the role, popping up to give us blasé lectures on the concept of tragic fate. Then the chorus figure has a change of heart, jumps into the story and begs Creon to stop the impending tragedy!
In a more droll way, Sean Bradley is equally hilarious as Jonas, the guard who arrests Antigone. Jonas is an everyman character, a person who just wants to get ahead in the world.
Craven, brutal or kindly as his changing circumstances require, Jonas is really just a specimen of “the mob” that Creon talks about, a force that needs to be controlled for the good of the state.
The achievement of Anouilh’s “Antigone” is that the comical smallness of these figures does not diminish the tragedy. To the contrary, the comedy makes the conflict between Antigone and Creon seem still more significant.
Directed by Alexander Burns, the production is spare in its use of light and sound, but when these assets are used, the effect is startlingly dramatic, reminding you that the characters are living within the grip of a great imperial state.
Lavita Shaurice shines as Antigone. The more Creon tries to dissuade her, the more insistent Antigone becomes. At the end, Shaurice’s eyes seem to explode as Antigone descends into a virtual madness of youthful idealism.
Robert Jason Jackson is wonderfully imperious as Creon. Unlike the Sophocles character, this Creon has no “tragic flaw.” Creon knows who he is, a practical man of honor who does what he has to do to keep order and sadly lives with the consequences.
“Antigone” was staged in 1944 and was widely seen as a commentary on the Vichy regime. Some saw Antigone as a symbol of the French resistance. Some did not like the sympathetic portrayal of Creon and accused Anouilh of being a Nazi sympathizer.
I see the play as being something larger, a unique comment on the conflict between idealism and practical need. More than anything, Anouilh transforms the Sophocles play into a “Hegelian Tragedy,” in which both parties are right and unable to compromise.
Sedgwick Theater is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Antigone” will run through March 25. Tickets available at 1-877-238-5596.