Review: ‘Antigone’ Asserts Whose Lives Matter, With Modern Relevance

Posted July 9, 2018 4:47 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — A makeshift shrine sprawls across the base of an imposing concrete facade — flowers, stuffed animals, deflating balloons, a profusion of glowing candles. The wall is chalked with graffiti, and placards lean against it: “RIP Eteocles,” “say his name,” “black lives matter.”

But in Sophocles’ “Antigone,” now getting a brisk and very handsome staging from the Classical Theater of Harlem, only lives given in service of the king are worthy of mourning. Eteocles died that way; thus the public display of grief. His brother, Polynices, was killed fighting on the other side in hostilities that have only just ended. By cruel order of the king, his body is to be left to rot, unlamented. Anyone who honors him with burial does so on pain of death.

Defiance, of course, is the fuel this play feeds on. Antigone — sister to the dead men, and niece to Creon, the king — is determined to do right by both of her brothers. A chalked message, projected in ghostly white letters atop the ones for Eteocles, spells out her goal: “Justice for Polyneices."

Directed with admirable clarity by Carl Cofield at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, where tickets are free, this is ancient Greek tragedy as contemporary parable. Publicity for the show plays up the feminist angle — Antigone as a woman challenging the patriarchy — and the Afropunk inspiration of the staging, but in performance these are not the resonances that stand out.

Devoted to atmospherics, this production prioritizes complexly layered design over dramatic cohesion. Some of the play’s meaning is lost with what this slender, hourlong show, “inspired by” a Paul Roche translation, leaves out, muffling the present-day echoes of the king’s vanity.

There is not a great deal of depth to Alexandria King’s Antigone or Ty Jones’ Creon, who comes across mainly as a standard villain. (Both were occasionally foiled by undependable body microphones at Saturday night’s performance.) Avon Haughton as Haemon, Creon’s truth-telling son, and Anthony Vaughn Merchant, as a broadly comical guard, do better with more naturalistic performances. Merchant is so funny, though, that the guard’s later somber turn is awkward.

Yet even with these shortcomings, the ritual of the whole — with the music of a crooning chorus (Ryan Alvarado, Denzel D. Fields and Nedra Snipes) and the movement of a flock of five dancers (choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher) — does bring catharsis.

It also brings the pleasure of ambitious design, starting with a set like a brutalist temple (by the brothers Christopher and Justin Swader), all hard angles and planes. Katherine Freer’s projections make clever use of its surfaces, including with the news crawl that provides exposition before the play begins. The lighting (by Alan C. Edwards) and cinematic sound design (by Curtis Craig) are also excellent.

This “Antigone” is about processing, together, a certain kind of grief, and honoring a certain kind of real-world death. The design, more than the play itself, ultimately drives home that emotional impact. In the last moments of the performance, the lights go out in the amphitheater, and this is what we see in the darkness: so many, many ghosts.

Additional Information:


Through July 29 at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park, Manhattan; 646-838-3868, cthnyc.org. Running time: 1 hour.