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History Lessons 

Theater Review: Antigone and The Complete History of America (Abridged)

If history repeats itself, even ancient history remains relevant in modern times. In 442 BC, Sophocles told the story of a Thebes reeling from the effects of war. Antigone's brothers, each of whom desires the throne, have slain each other in battle. Their uncle, Creon, is crowned king, and by his edict one of the brothers is given proper burial while the other, Polynices -- a rebel against Thebes -- is left in the streets to rot. Antigone must choose: Forsake her brother's body or face capital punishment if she buries him. At UVM's Royall Tyler Theatre, guest Director Mark Nash (also Vermont Stage Company's artistic director) has staged an Antigone with a significant sense of immediacy. As he puts it, "Essentially, this is the story of the cost of speaking out against a strong government during a time of war. Sound familiar?"

Jean Anouilh certainly thought so when an act of resistance to the Nazi occupation of Paris inspired his adaptation of this play. UVM had plenty of versions to choose from, but Anouilh's version feels more intimate than the literal translations. He sets the play in the 20th century (Nash has updated it to the 21st), not only with regard to language but also to politics. While Sophocles' Creon is a callous tyrant, Anouilh's is a man of compromise and justification. This Creon is a subtler, more sympathetic character; in fact, an audience is likely to find all Anouilh's characters more accessible than their superhuman Sophoclean counterparts.

Those characters are compellingly rendered by a 12-member, bi-racial cast -- a majority of them students, along with a couple of local actors in minor roles, and guest artist Esau Pritchett. A New York professional seen earlier this year in VSC's To Kill a Mockingbird, Pritchett proves his worth; his tall, regal-looking Creon is persuasive and passionate. And a Creon difficult to dismiss as a sell-out makes the story thought-provoking rather than moralistic.

UVM senior Eboni Booth's performance as Antigone starts out a little reserved but gains strength in a scene opposite Pritchett. In it, Creon argues that he acts for the common good. Polynices, he says, was a villain and the people need to witness this post-mortem retribution. Creon asks Antigone to "pity me and live," to marry his son -- her fiance Haemon -- to raise a strong son of her own and be happy. Booth, like her character, rises to the challenge. Her performance is driven and brave; she depicts an Antigone ardent to the point of tears without stumbling into melodrama or fanaticism. These actors do justice to their own character's convictions; they also listen and respond to each other in order to create a scene about individuals struggling to connect, rather than an intellectual debate.

Of course, Pritchett and Booth aren't in this alone. Melissa Quine, as Antigone's sister, the beautiful "golden" Ismene who advocates caution, is more than a pretty face; especially during a disturbing monologue describing how Antigone will be executed, Quine speaks with specificity and purpose. Will Todisco plays a guard whose often petty loquaciousness might seem a distraction but really throws into relief the more important matters at hand. The remaining cast members, to a person, hold up their end of the bargain.

The Chorus is a unique role. Played by one actress, Kate Emmerich, the Chorus functions as an intermediary between the audience and the story. She tells us from the very beginning that Antigone is doomed to die; this play, after all, is more about why choices are made than what choices are made. She then lets the tale take its course, interceding only occasionally. Emmerich interprets the Chorus as a composed guide. While her performance is compelling, it might have been a more interesting choice to take a commanding stance, use bold gestures and revel in the authority and burden of her knowledge. Her costume -- a Matrix-style black leather get-up -- certainly invites her to do so.

Martin Thaler's other costumes, as well as Jeffrey Modereger's set, pay homage to both Antigone's 21st-century setting and its classical roots. Ismene, for example, wears dresses that might be seen on a runway today but owe their inspiration to the toga. The show is performed on two levels; a staircase connects them. Creon, as king, exists on the upper level in an office with a leather office chair and a glass desk, as well as stone walls that might have housed ancient Greeks.

The audience sits on three sides of the stage, which makes it difficult to ensure everyone a good view. Usually, Nash and his cast deal skillfully; if audience members see Antigone's back as she speaks, at least they can see Creon's reaction. But too often, actors block each other, and several times an actor walks up the stairs with his or her back to the audience. This is usually uninteresting and needn't happen, since the stairs also allow actors to walk up them in profile. These are relatively minor flaws, but the staging would be cleaner without them.

In the end, though, it's the story that's not only relevant but important. Despite its collegiate setting, Antigone's questions and answers are far from academic.

It's said that history has been written by the winners. Often, "winners" has meant "white men." But in the last few decades, feminists and other progressive thinkers have taken to revising history. Then along came the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor to prove that white men really can experience historical enlightenment. But maybe their scripts aren't so much enlightened as they are just plain funny. In any case, VSC's current production of The Complete History of America (Abridged) is a wild and wacky parody of our nation's past.

The play is more variety show than traditional theater. The members of the cast introduce themselves as Corey Patrick, John Patrick (no relation) and Alex Smith, which happen to be their real names. They then proceed to "start at the beginning" in the map shop of Amerigo Vespucci, the man who can claim one country and two continents as namesakes. John, in an oversized floppy hat, portrays Amerigo, while Alex, in a huge wig and impressively fake cleavage, plays the nagging Mrs. Vespucci. The trio progresses from this -- after a brief regression to the native inhabitants of "America" -- to the present-day U.S.A. in irreverent skits, songs and comedy routines. While Complete History was produced originally in 1996, this is a fully updated version, with plenty of references to recent history.

There are also plenty of visual aids, including a mapped trajectory of the bullet better known as "the shot heard round the world" (it "made an illegal U-turn and took a right on Main Street," etc.). The basic costume for all three cast members is a suit and tie that gets layered with an array of accessories, including military uniforms, dresses, various types of facial hair and more cheesy wigs. Props abound as well; perhaps the most memorable are the super-soakers apparently used by soldiers in World War I.

The water guns are used to dampen, though not actually soak, the audience; this is just one part of the show's non-threatening audience participation. At specific points, viewers are invited to ask questions or volunteer answers, but no one is put on the spot. Latecomers are heckled by Amerigo, but in a feel-good way that ends with Corey, John and Alex shaking hands with the tardy arrivals. Most of the audience participation comes in the form of laughter.

The show is performed "in the round," a challenge these actors and director Stephen Golux obviously know how to deal with. John Devlin's set is a square of red and white stripes around a star-spangled central platform. The audience sits on all four sides of the square. For the whole audience to have a good view, the actors have to "play the diagonals" -- in other words, they have to stand in a corner of the square and address the opposite corner. That way, all audience members have a good view; they either see the actor face-on or in profile. This group plays the diagonals -- often with the aid of two-sided flip charts -- as if it were second nature.

Alternately, actors can stand in the middle of the stage and turn around a lot. It's boring if an actor shilly-shallies about which way to face. But if his movements are crisp -- in essence, if he does multiple takes -- each to a different side of the audience, it's funny. Golux and his cast understand this, too. And Devlin has helped them out by providing another option: The pedestal can spin. It's surprising how amusing a rotating performer can be.

This show contains humor in a variety of flavors. It's an incredibly physical production with lots of unabashed slapstick, right down to the classic cream pie in the face. There are oodles of bad puns and wordplays: "We can escape in disguise." "They'll shoot us down like pigeons." "Not in the skies, in disguise!"

Anachronisms also run wild, such as when Betsy Ross reveals she wanted a flag design that looks more like way-before-its-time abstract art than stars and stripes. There are superbly bad accents, and a good deal of wit. When the audience votes in favor of John's Broadway-musical-style ending instead of Corey's and Alex's "thoughtful" film-noir finale, Corey declares, "You won the popular vote -- but we won the electoral college!" And because humor is disarming, there are even moments where the audience is caught off guard by a poignant or pointed observation.

Whether delivering slapstick or satire, this trio proves that history is anything but dull, and that even those bad jokes you can't believe you're laughing at can teach you a thing or two.

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Kristen Eaton

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