Antigone has been through a lot. As if all that business with her dad/brother Oedipus wasn’t enough, she can’t even bury her brother without being condemned by King Creon, who has declared him a traitor to the state who must be left to rot.
Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone has also been through a lot since 442 B.C. or so. It’s endured any number of oddball interpretations, as Aurora Theatre illustrated three years ago with Cherylene Lee’s Antigone Falun Gong. But they don’t come much odder than Mac Wellman’s Antigone, debuted in New York by Big Dance Company/Classic Stage Company in 2001 and now brought to Oakland’s Temescal Arts Center by Woman’s Will as the non-Shakespearean offering in its two-show season.
The usual Woman’s Will approach of all-female casting is incidental here, because this isn’t an adaptation of Antigone so much as an avant-garde riff on the play’s themes and various philosophical constructs “as played by the three Fates, also the three facts, on their way to becoming the three Graces.”
Director Erin Merritt told the opening-night audience not to worry about understanding everything and just treat it like a dance performance. Indeed, there’s a great deal of dance in the piece — twisty, writhing, dances choreographed by Christina Braun, introduced one by one by the Shriek Operator, “an ancient god of unknown origins” who represents a diacritical symbol of logical notation: “They dance the dance no one has ever.”
“I am and am not named Antigone,” says Laura Ricci, one of three performers/playmates dressed in matching short blue dresses with white makeup like mimes or dolls. The three begin crouched at manual typewriters on the floor and soon take up the white yarn that forms an outline of a fallen body on the floor and make a cat’s cradle of it, singing in the manner of jump-rope rhymes. They bound around the stage like harlequins or peevish children and shriek at heaps of soldiers’ uniforms.
To take on their respective roles, they don black conical hats like dunce caps. Antigone’s hat has a big red A on it, but any echo of The Scarlet Letter seems accidental. It does, however, provide a chance for Antigone and Creon (Melusina Gomez) to do a classic clown/vaudeville routine in which they keep trying to exchange hats and wind up with the wrong hats over and over.
They’re also being controlled, or at least manipulated, by the Shriek Operator. With her disco makeup and novelty glasses (costumes by Tammy Berlin), Lauren Carley looks more like a bed & breakfast operator dolled up as a fairy godmother for Halloween. She sits at a cluttered desk next to a dry-erase board on which she scribbles equations and rearranges the letters in “Antigone” to spell “negation” or “giant one.” With an amused expression, she makes cryptic aphorisms in an irritating singsong voice and gestures magically to send crackly static at the performers.
If it sounds like you’d need a philosophy degree to understand this play, rest assured that it wouldn’t help much. I have one, and it’s all Greek to me.
You’d have to know your Sophocles to recognize them, but there are glimpses and elements of the original play in there somewhere, including several variations on the “numberless are the world’s wonders, but none more wonderful than man” speech. But it’s as if they’re being performed by deranged children long after any record of the original story has crumbled to dust.
“She did it,” says Lauri Costigan playing — well, it’s not altogether clear who she’s playing at the moment, although later she’ll be Antigone’s lover Haemon and the blind seer Tiresias. “You know. The bad thing, at the bad place.”
Maddening as it can be when it falls into litanies of logical fallacies, Wellman’s language is as rich and poetic as it is hard to grasp hold of, with lines such as “up he was stuck and in the upness of his stuckitude he fell.”
All this is intriguing, and magnetic performances by the three fates/facts/graces help to carry it off, but it’s also terribly abstruse. Creon shuffles nervously through papers and sputters about Antigone’s possible Communist connections. A little rodent-like fuzzball seemingly made out of a remote-controlled car comes whirring out onto the floor, and the cast reacts in mild horror. Antigone clicks her heels together and goes to the wardrobe to get her glowing star wand. They sing in Greek, lullaby-style, to a snaky sock puppet.
It’s telling that when the Shriek Operator makes the fates switch roles and do it all over again, even after only 80 minutes the realization that they’re really going to speed through the whole thing again is terrifying.
Wellman’s script doesn’t offer much guidance as to the repetition aside from length, and when they run through it yet again, even faster, and then a fourth time, seeing the bare bones of the piece rush past really drives home the fact that this stuff didn’t make sense the first time around.