Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Greenbelt Arts Center The Burial at Thebes

By • May 9th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
The Burial at Thebes
Greenbelt Arts Center
Greenbelt Community Arts Center, Greenbelt, MD
Through May 21st
75 minutes
$15/$12 Seniors and Students
Reviewed May 6th, 2011

Honor is a pernicious virtue. In The Burial at Thebes, Irish playwright and poet Seamus Heaney’s translation/adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, currently playing at the Greenbelt Arts Center, King Creon insists that all citizens honor the law – his law – on pain of death. Antigone insists on honoring her brother, slain on the losing side of a civil war, by burying his body in defiance of Creon’s edict. Between them there is no possibility of compromise, no ability to listen to counsels of reason and accommodation. Each is trapped in his or her own narrative of honor, with death and irremediable loss as the consequence.

Honor is typically associated with male hierarchy and violence – think 19th century duels, honor killings, or military slogans like “to keep our honor clean” and “death before dishonor.” In this production, Antigone, who comes from a family of rulers and warriors, lives this latter slogan as avidly as any heroism-craving soldier. In fact, as played by the stunning Fahnlohnee Tate, Antigone is more than a little in love with death. She denies the legitimacy of the state and its laws when they are contrary to her duty to the gods and her brother, and she actively courts martyrdom rather than yield, never mind the effects that choice may have on the people who love her. Tate vividly conveys her character’s unrelenting passion and single-minded determination, though in some passages her rapid delivery and too-consistent pitch get in the way of the poetry.

It is possible to play Creon as a creature of cold rationality, perfectly consistent within the logic of his closed system, no matter how terrible the results. This is not how Michael Galizia chose to interpret the role. An actor of substantial vocal and physical power, Galizia plays Creon as a man of ungoverned emotion, notably a passion for demanding unquestioning obedience from everyone around him. This Creon is above all a capricious tyrant, a king whose effort to rule a city is undone by his inability to rule himself. His ultimate despair is as outsized as his earlier anger and hunger for power.

Director Patrick Miller commented, in a post-show discussion, that Sophocles puts his thumb on the scale, favoring Antigone over Creon in the play’s moral calculus, but this version of the play may tilt the balance too far in that direction. Heany wrote the script in 2003-04, at the outset of the Iraq war, and had in mind George W. Bush as a modern parallel to Creon. By setting the play physically in Ireland at the time of the Troubles, Miller sought to deemphasize this specific political context, but Creon remains, in Heaney’s script and Galizia’s interpretation, more a villain than a worthy adversary, for whose position there is a case to be made. The impact of Creon’s final tragedy is diminished to the extent that what we see is primarily an evildoer getting a deserved comeuppance.

The production benefits from some strong supporting performances. Scott Courlander as Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s lover, portrays convincingly a young man trying to bridge the gap between protecting the woman he loves and protecting his respected father from himself. Rachelle White, as Ismene, Antigone’s sister, is the persuasive voice of pragmatic reason, speaking for the value of life, even if compromised, over death for the sake of principle. Her dignified, wordless mourning over the bodies of Antigone and Haemon is a fitting close to the play. As the Guard, Kevin O’Connell amusingly conveys, in his body and voice, the hesitancy of a messenger approaching with bad news a king who is perfectly capable of shooting messengers bearing bad news.

The Chorus, representing the people of the city, was a disappointment. The group sometimes fell short of unison, and when together had a cadence all too reminiscent of a responsive reading in church. Their energy was sometimes low, and their choreographed movement was often superfluous and strained. The standout in the Chorus was its youngest member, 5th grader Rebecca Korn, who showed excellent focus, a vibrant voice, and strong and appropriate reactions to the events around her. Heather Martin emerged from the chorus to describe the deaths of Antigone and Haemon, delivering her news with journalistic clarity and making the unconventional choice of telling the terrible tale not stricken with horror, but in tones of cool irony.

In keeping with the near-contemporary setting of the play, costuming was mostly modern dress (e.g., military fatigues for many of the male characters, civilian clothes seemingly pulled from the closets of many of the chorus members). As challenging as Greek tragedy can be for a community theater, it can be effectively presented without elaborate stagecraft, and the simplicity of the set and lighting design worked well for this production.

Director’s Notes

The very foundations of the city of Thebes rest on incest, murder, depravity, and betrayal. Classical stories set in Thebes showcase the basest, most corrupt elements of humanity. As our story begins, however, Thebes stands poised to forge a new path forward.

Eteocles and Polyneices, the two sons of Oedipus who ruled Thebes after the death of their father, have killed each other in a fierce battle for control of the city. Creon, the new king, represents a chance to break away from the pollution of Oedipus and his family and start anew. Even when Creon issues an appalling edict denying burial to Polyneices, the people of Thebes-now filled with the powerful desire for something better-support him, setting in motion the ultimate tragedy of the play.

Although political forces and public declarations drive the action of the play, what makes Antigone such a compelling story is the personal passion and conflict at its heart. Each character is acting out a strong sense of what is right and just, and it is their implacability rather than their positions that create the tragedy.

The clarity of Seamus Heaney’s translation allows the personal passion of the play to shine through. As a nod to Heaney’s native Northern Ireland, many of the design elements of this show are taken from the Troubles. However, this is much more a touchstone than a specific location;the language and themes of this classic play echo across nations, today, and generation after generation.

The Cast

  • Antigone: Fahnlohnee Tate
  • Ismene: Rachelle White
  • Chorus Leader: Ron Vardiman
  • Boy/Chorus: Rebecca Korn
  • Messenger/Chorus: Heather Martin
  • Eurydice/Chorus: Maureen Roult
  • Chorus: Henry Green, Phil Brandis, Jacinda Shelly
  • Creon: Michael J. Galizia
  • Guard: Kevin O’Connell
  • Haemon: Scott Courlander
  • Teresias: Dan Staicer

Production Team

  • Director: Patrick Miller
  • Producers: Jill Goodrich and Kevin O’Connell
  • Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Elizabeth Angelo
  • Choreographer: Allison Otto
  • Set Designer: Alan Wallisch
  • Master Carpenter: Peter Quince, really?
  • Lighting Designer & Technician: Peter Caress
  • Lighting Crew: Kevin O’Connell and Jacinda Shelly
  • Light Board Operator: Elizabeth Angelo
  • Scenic Designer: Melanie Papasian
  • Set Construction Crew: Raymond Caron, Michael Galizia, Maureen Roult, Fahniohnee Tate, Rachelle White
  • Sound Designer: Kevin O’Connell
  • Sound Board Operator: Kevin O’Connell
  • Photographer: Jeff Lesniak
  • Program/Poster Art Design: Erika Abrams
  • Program Layout: Betsy Marks Delaney

Disclaimer: Greenbelt Arts Center provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

One Response »

  1. thanks for coming to the show!