A young man's lifeless body is left unburied. The town's sovereign, citing state authority, forbids the family from dignifying his death with a burial. The family protests, risking their lives to defy the laws of men in the name of a higher moral order.
It's a tale as old as time. Or at least the 5th century BC, when the Greek tragedian Sophocles penned what has become known collectively as the Theban plays. Director Philip Boehm's Upstream Theater presented Oedipus Rex in 2010. Now, at this particularly resonant moment in our city's life, Upstream presents the last play in the Theban cycle, opening its season with a workmanlike, classically minded Antigone, a tale that wrestles with pride, state fealty, the laws of men and gods, and the price of personal sacrifice.
With a name like "Upstream," Boehm's company was never intended to appeal to the masses. Instead, he's made a name for himself staging challenging productions of classical and esoteric works — an oeuvre that over the years has won his small company well-deserved critical praise, and a devoted following among the town's cognoscenti.
The bar is quite high, then, when a foundational work like Antigone takes the stage. With a production history that spans millennia, the work cries out for bold interpretation, and recent adaptations have comprised everything from a street drama to the War on Terror. What Boehm presents, on the other hand, is more of a museum piece — well crafted and ably acted, but on balance tame and treated with white gloves — a polished, cerebral, somewhat torpid theatrical artifact.
Working with David Slavitt's fluid translation, Antigone opens as Oedipus' sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, have killed one another on the field of battle. The new ruler of Thebes, Creon, has decreed that no one shall bury Polyneices, who attacked the city. But while the rest of the populace submits to Creon's edict, Oedipus' daughter, Antigone, defies her uncle, who condemns her to be buried alive.
"Your rights end where the rights of the gods begin," Creon's son (and Antigone's fiancé), Haemon, says as he implores his father to reconsider. But Creon is unmoved. That is, until the blind seer, Tiresias, beseeches him to correct his mistake, prophesying that he will pay "corpse for corpse" for his actions. "You cannot keep here what belongs to the gods below, a corpse, unburied, obscene. Or send the living into a tomb," Tiresias pleads. "The gods resent your intrusion into their domain."
But it's already too late. The furies are upon Creon, and as the chastened ruler rushes to reverse his fortune, fate comes crashing down.
Trafficking as it does in questions of pride and personal sacrifice, Antigone remains a potent, living work. Nevertheless, this world of fate and furies, hubris and catharsis, can also seem academic — both remote and rote. And while Upstream's production is sound, it's also a missed opportunity to take more of an artistic risk, bridging the millennia and infusing the work with modern implications. Instead, Boehm plays it safe, delivering a skilled but fairly standard production that (aside from a few bafflingly anachronistic costuming choices) is long on beard-stroking stimulation, but short on emotional force.
Played on Michael Heil's spare set (ornamented with James van Well's lovely painted renditions of Oedipus and the Sphinx), the cast handles the material well, giving stylized performances that are free from the naturalness so common in modern theater. Maggie Conroy makes for a steely Antigone, and the ever-bruising Peter Mayer is an imperious Creon. John Bratkowski shows range in the roles of the Guard and Tiresias, and Wendy Renée Greenwood performs nicely in the dual roles of Antigone's sister, Ismene, and Creon's wife, Eurydice. Meanwhile, the chorus, terrifically garbed in LaLonnie Lehman's costumes, was a little spotty on opening night, stammering over their lines and inexpert with their rattles, congas and modern lyres.
The show's real standout, though, is the astonishingly gifted Andrew Michael Neiman. He walks a razor's edge as Haemon, Creon's loyal son who both respects and challenges his father. His brief performance, filled with fiery pathos, gives a tantalizing glimpse of the emotional immediacy this bloody play still harbors.
It's a powerful, flesh-and-blood performance, but one that resides uncomfortably in this production that can otherwise feel a little bloodless.
Antigone Through October 26 at Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Avenue. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 314-863-4999 or click here.
Follow RFT critic at large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.