Molly Hickok, Dierdre O'Connell,and Rebecca Wisocky in Antigone(Photo © Paula Court)
Molly Hickok, Dierdre O’Connell,
and Rebecca Wisocky in Antigone
(Photo © Paula Court)

With Mac Wellman, you never know what you’ll be getting. Apparently, his Antigone treatment, created by Big Dance Theater, was so baffling when it recently toured non-English-speaking countries that director Paul Lazar had to reassure patrons before the dance-theater piece began that they were not about to see a production of Sophocles’s relatively straightforward tragedy; rather, they would be exposed to a version of the myth based on an earlier approach in which the Three Fates deliver the report. It’s implied that this run-up occurred before the Aristotelian unities were codified and subsequently honored.

Well, guess what? Lazar’s still giving that brief speech to English-speaking audiences. Theater mavens who’ve followed Wellman through the last couple of decades know that the unities he likes to disregard are language unities. He’s going to free-associate as he spins into lilting yet muscular theater poetry whatever tale has caught his fancy; it could be something of his own concoction or it could be his take on something traditional. Sometimes, as in Terminal Hip, Crowbar, Cellophane, or Bitter Bierce, the results are deliciously tantalizing: The meaning of these plays seems just within your grasp but then eludes you, which only makes them all the more mesmerizing. But sometimes you get Anything’s Dream, the misfired reconstruction of As You Like It that Wellman did for Muhlenberg College students a few years back.

Antigone, for which Annie-B Parson has supplied the choreography and musical staging, falls into the former category. It looks and sounds exceedingly beautiful while teasing the audience with its full meaning. The familiar Antigone storyline is filled in and complemented by Joanne Howard’s sparse set, Claudia Stephens’s vaguely early-Grecian costume designs, Jay Ryan’s meticulous lighting, Jane Shaw’s encompassing sound design, and original songs by Cynthia Hopkins that eerily sound as if they could be ancient. As the legend has it, the grieving Antigone, daughter of the gods-forsaken Oedipus, buries brother Polyneices despite Creon’s decree that interment not take place (he’s bridling at his dead nephew’s role as one of the seven against Thebes).

The plot is hardly presented in linear fashion by Wellman, yet the play is chronological to the degree that Creon, for instance, forbids the burial and then Antigone follows through on her intentions. What Wellman tosses into the air to land however it may is the storytelling process itself. A white-bearded narrator (Leroy Logan) at a cluttered desk stage right speaks into a microphone and occasionally strums a ukulele while delivering the juicy patter. The Fates (Deirdre O’Connell, Molly Hickok, Rebecca Wisocky, Nancy Ellis) dance the story; sometimes they lip-synch to the narrator’s words, sometimes they speak quickly in high-pitched voices that make them sound like The Mikado‘s three little maids from school.

Early in the just-under-an-hour-long show, the women draw scraps of paper, ostensibly to tell them whom they’ll be impersonating. (They’re the fates, after all, and are as subject to fate’s whims as the next person.) Then Deirdre O’Connell as Antigone, Molly Hickok as Teresias and Eurydice, Rebecca Wisocky as Creon, and Nancy Ellis — who’s relegated strictly to chorus duty — dance, sing, and speak in precisely executed harmony. The narrator also takes on the guise of someone called E Shriek, who’s identified in Wellman’s script as “an unknown god of unknown origin” and who also is the symbol of logical notation “as described in the appendix of The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.” The Fates manipulate any number of props, including a helmet that stands in for the deceased Polyneices and a boom-like stick topped with a microphone. As they perform their graceful tasks, sand falls from the ceiling; Antigone is confined to one of the pilaster-like curtains upstage and a small console on wheels is pushed around the playing area. When Antigone’s tragedy has been played through once, Wellman announces that it will be played through three more times with the performers alternating roles — but he only begins a second repetition before the final blackout.

Perhaps Wellman intends to communicate exact meaning with his references to E Shriek et al. More likely, he doesn’t; he has to know that few patrons are going to hit their seats with full knowledge of things like the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy appendices. Wellman is interested in language for language’s sake and movement for movement’s sake as they accompany a loose plot. Certainly, that must be what he’s after in this piece, which is not only lovely but has its own sly sense of humor. While the aim of Greek tragedy was to inspire awe and terror, playwright Wellman, director Lazar, and choreographer Parson seem to be pursuing aural and visual sophistication and sheen. Furthermore, in telling a familiar story as they imagine that it might have been told before Sophocles subjected it to a later rationale, they are focusing attention on the very act of storytelling and inviting audience members to delight in the method by which the story is being told them this time.

Much of the delight of the production lies in its cast. This Antigone is subtitled “As Played and Danced by the Three Fates on Their Way to Becoming the Three Graces.” Dancer-actors Ellis, Hickok, O’Connell, and Wisocky have grace well covered — and Leroy Logan, looking like Father Christmas, has his own sort of graying grace. If Mac Wellman’s Antigone doesn’t achieve Sophoclean catharsis, it stuns us on its own imaginative terms.

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