Theater Review: Antigone at A Noise Within

A semi-honest agent: “This could be big for your career, I don’t mind lying.”

It’s become a running gag that whenever I go to see theater it’s over 100 degrees; unfortunately Mother Nature is the only one laughing. As always I’m in my explorer hat, with the flap down the back, necessary because I get sunburned on the back of my neck after about ten seconds, but luckily the bus stop is shaded and I can take it off. . . only to burn my fingers with how hot it has become just crossing the street. And of course the air conditioning on the bus is ice-cold in comparison. At least the driver is cheery.
On the way north up Rosemead Blvd. there’s the Greek church once again holding GreekFest! Why did no one tell me? Your PR guys suck. Okay, I’m not about to go in this heat, but I’ve had fun there before, might have handled a few minutes of looking for archaeology souvenirs. . . as in t-shirts of the Acropolis, not actual artifacts; don’t buy them, they fund terrorists.
Off the bus into the cavernous parking lot cum transportation station, where I simply have to cross one access road and then walk a somewhat shady path for about ten seconds to get to the back door of A Noise Within.  Yes, so lucky that an excellent theater company is located where all I have to do is cross the street from my apartment, catch a bus for 5-10 minutes (depending on traffic), and walk for fifteen seconds.
Since I’m at the mercy of the bus schedules I’m early as always, so I hunker down by a hidden couch next to the balcony entrance and peruse the program, then my phone. I’m probably the only person who actually turns off their phone before being told, though this time there’s a beautiful female voice telling you to do so before the show begins; gotta find out who that is.
Also gotta remember next time to take some photos of this unusual yet intriguing building. I have no idea if they maintained the original design of the lobby, but since it fits with the scheme of the exterior, I’m giving it a doubtful benefit. Research tells me it used to be the Stuart Pharmaceutical Building, a midcentury modern landmark designed by architect Edward Durell Stone; for you architecture buffs, here’s a small article on the building’s history until I can photographically dazzle you next time.
As you approach the staircase going down into the theater—I took the elevator—there’s a sign saying that this season of theater works is dedicated to Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, which became a lot less surprising when in the above-mentioned research I found he was instrumental in bringing the company to its new home, after years in Glendale.
Okay, down in my usual aisle seat and chatting with the woman seated next to me while trying not to listen to the inane patter of some rich matrons behind me. To my surprise, Glen Miller is the house music as we’re waiting for the play to start; to everyone’s shock, I named those tunes: Little Brown Jug and String of Pearls.
Okay, on to the play, or I should say the first preview of the play. In the publicity it’s said this is the first authorized translation from the modern French version of Sophocles’ classic by Jean Anouilh, so that’s cool. The basic plot is that in Ancient Greece it was important that a body be buried so their soul can be free or some such; there has never been a time in human history when a majority of people didn’t believe in something silly, goes the famous quote. And said rites have to be done by a woman. More specific to this play, two brothers were in a war to rule Thebes and killed each other—I picture a Wild West shootout—leaving Creon—who I think is their uncle, but with Oedipus as part of the family, who knows?—as king. He kinda arbitrarily decides that one of the brothers should be thought of as a hero and the other a villain, and so declares that the bad guy should not be buried, just left there to stink up the place until the scavengers harvest him. Antigone, sister of the two as well as daughter of Oedipus, thinks her uncle is being a meanie and goes out in the middle of the night to bury her brother anyway, despite knowing she’ll be put to death for it.
We start with a Greek chorus of one, a lady dressed in a style that makes me think of the 50s, but since when do I know anything about fashion? With great humor and plenty of gravitas—not at the same time—she tells us what’s up, even introduces the characters as the actors stand still on stage. Since this isn’t a particularly famous play with the general public, it seems like a good idea.
Creon is dressed in a business suit, which completely fits the type of ruler he is. Other than a few pieces of broken temple masonry on stage, there’s no attempt to make it feel like it takes place in Ancient Greece; there’s a radio and bombs going off, so it’s definitely a modern setting. Since this is a translation of the French version which was written in the 1940s, all this makes sense, but only if you think about it. . . or don’t bother to think about it.
The most colorful of the characters is the sentry, dressed in an overdone army uniform, not exactly ceremonial but not what anyone on duty would wear either; in fact he looks more like General McArthur than any mere soldier or guard. His clipped speech and manner is over the top and also reminiscent of WW2 movies, done for comedy, which worked for me.
Without revealing any more of the plot, I have to sat this was pretty intense and discomforting, but then that’s what tragedy’s supposed to be. The hardest part was adjusting expectations; people had different belief systems thousands of years ago, and things that seem inconsequential to us were life and death to them. Even knowing that, it was still tremendously difficult to follow along as to why certain things were so important, especially to Antigone and Creon.
At some points it felt like Antigone had a death wish, or perhaps wants to be a martyr; she basically forces Creon to put her to death. Seems like a really high price to pay just to throw some dirt over a dead body. But there’s a director’s note in the program that made this better for me: “None of us here tonight believes that Antigone’s brother will never rest until she throws some dirt on the corpse. Yet we listen, and we believe in her, although she neither knows nor cares what we believe.”
There’s quite a few philosophical ramblings between Antigone and Creon, such as civil disobedience, the nature of happiness, and the burden of being in charge; considering how tyrannical Creon becomes, that’s definitely not out of place here. There’s a line toward the end that I perversely enjoyed, maybe too much: “They will rot well.” But the best moment for me was when Creon made an Oedipus joke about the famous tragic figure being called a certain insult that actually, unlike everyone else, does fit him; I was the only one who laughed. (In case you didn’t get that, it’s frequently shortened to mofo.)
With all that said, the acting was as superb as usual whenever I see this company. The main character basically has to carry the play, and Emily James does so without any unnecessary flash or ego, yet still enjoying the hell out of her rare impassioned lines. Eric Curtis Johnson as Creon—whom I saw in Dance of Death but didn’t come close to recognizing—brought an air of pomposity, though thankfully not too much, to a character who is by turns sympathetic and hated. Lorna Raver as the maid did a good job of lightening the mood at the beginning, where she starts off the play alone for a good five minutes. As mentioned before, the guard—as thespian’d by Stephen Weingartner—also brought some much needed comic relief to the heaviness and ultimate despair inherit in the work. The direction was sparse, which is not strange considering the stage is never changed, and I think the play is better for it. My fave part of the staging is the inclusion of a small water source behind some ruins, just big enough to dip some fingers and wet your face, but with a light positioned perfectly to see the reflection of small shimmering waves on the whiteness.
Since it had worked for me before, I had skipped lunch in favor of some snacks before the two o’clock show, so by the time we were let out around four I was hungry but not starving. This all works out because across the street is Hook Burger, which has rapidly become my second fave after In-N-Out. . . plus they have bacon! Rather than having girls bring your food to the table they have switched to a pager coaster system, which was a shame because I enjoyed talking to those ladies. As I finally get to munch I check the app and find my bus is coming in 5 minutes, with the next one an hour later. So with a rueful gesture at having to leave the air conditioning, I wrap my half-burger up and stuff it in my pocket—I love these shorts, so many pockets!—and swig from the bottle of orange cream soda as I hustle across the street to the bus stop, trying to ignore the even more incredibly intense heat. The orange drink is proving ineffective in regulating my temperature, though it sure brings it taste-wise.
When I got home I ate the second half of the burger while watching a documentary on Mayan glyphs on Netflix.
;o)

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