Antigone: A powerful protest play

Chicago's "Year of Antigone" - a citywide celebration of legendary Oedipus' less illustrious daughter - has arrived in full force to the Edgewater and Rogers Park neighborhoods.

Loyola University Theatre Department's production of Burial at Thebes, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney's translation of the Ancient Greek play by Sophocles, does equal justice to the original, the modern adaptation and this groundbreaking litterateurs' fiesta.

But why do the plights and passions of a 2,500-year old character matter to a metropolis with so many more pressing problems? The answer is that both the play and its recent interpretations by psychoanalysts, philosophers and feminists raise questions that allow us to think through some of these very problems in dynamically pragmatic ways.

Antigone is a product of the most infamous incestuous relationship in literary history, her father's half-sister and mother's granddaughter.

But this biographical accident bears less weight to the play's plot than do other outcomes of its prequels, Oedipus Rex and Seven Against Thebes. In one, the Complex's namesake fulfills the prophecy despite his best efforts and, in the other, he splits his kingdom between his two sons before self-banishment, thus fomenting a civil war in which they kill each other. The play opens at this point and closes the three-part story.

Creon, the new king, decrees one of Antigone's dead brothers a traitor and denies him the burial rights required to enter the afterlife. The regrettable relevance of such denial to veterans of current wars cannot be played down. Going against the state and generation Creon embodies and represents, Antigone performs the rights, only to discover they have been undone.

Arrested upon her return to the corpse, the king - whose son is also her fiancé and whose pleas on her behalf go unheeded - condemns her to death despite being urged not to do so by the most important of prophets, the blind Tiresias. Antigone commits suicide in protest, spurring her fiancé and then his mother to do the same in grief. Creon, denied everything he loves, divests himself of the Theban crown no one now believes he deserves.

Knowing the outline and outcome of an Ancient Greek play does not in any way detract from the ability to enjoy or be enthralled by it. In fact, familiarity with narratives and characters were assumed by contemporaries, so that it was the playwrights' and producers' take that were most sought after and appreciated.

I admit, this was my first Loyola Theatre experience but it will not be my last. The chorus' charisma and coordination, coupled with the collegiate beauty of its dozen or so members, would make the cast of Deal or No Deal jealous. The tensions in and assumptions of the audience they represent are complimented by clever choreography.

The burgeoning talents of those in leading roles are highly convincing when unforced, the strong and simple set that forms the backdrop of the action matches perfectly the same qualities in the words of Heaney's translation, even if the costumes, like the poetics, leave something to be desired.

For Antigone, citizenship does not mean blind obedience to the state but the duty to be disobedient when the state goes astray; law is not synonymous with the whims of those in power nor the temporary insanity of the people, but that which binds us together in peace and prosperity; the circumstances of birth are not a limit but a starting line.

In pivotal election years such as this, in which Chicago has traditionally played a pivotal role, a Year of Antigone offers a provocative paradigm to think local and national problems through and, hopefully, come up with some much-needed creative solutions to prevent future ones.

Burial at Thebes is playing at the Kathleen Mullady Theatre on the Loyola campus,  1125 W. Loyola Avenue, through February 17.

Tickets are $15 General Admission, $8 Seniors and Non-Loyola Students, and $6 Loyola Students.

More information on Chicago's Year of Antigones is available online.  

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