Ethereal, stylized and visually stunning, Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi’s production of “Antigone,” at the Park Avenue Armory through October 6, fuses several theatrical traditions, some of them thousands of years old, some newly created.
Twenty-nine performers, ghostly in flowing white kimonos, glide slowly and gracefully through the ankle-deep water that covers the stage of the Armory’s massive Drill Hall. Placed around them in this pool of shimmering water (made with 18,000 gallons of water) are boulders, meant to resemble a Buddhist stone garden. This is the setting in which Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play unfolds, set into motion by Antigone’s defiance of her uncle King Creon’s decree that no one bury her brother, who had rebelled against the state.
A half dozen of the characters – including Antigone, her sister Ismene, her cousin and fiancée Haemon, and King Creon — are each portrayed by two performers: One, squatting in the water, recites the lines of the character in Japanese (with English surtitles projected on the backdrop.) The other, standing atop one of the boulders, dances the part.
These mesmerizing duets are the director’s clever modern adaptation of Japanese Bunraku theater, which traditionally pairs each human performer with a dancing puppet, rather than a human dancer. Similarly, Miyagi adopts Japanese Noh theater (a dozen of the performers play Hiroko Tanakawa’s eerie original music marked by heavy percussion) and Indonesian shadow play.
New York audiences can’t help seeing the immediate relevance of the story of Antigone’s defiance of political authority to do what is morally right, (which was applied most recently to the story of Michael Brown’s killing in “Antigone in Ferguson”.) In the (as usual oversized) program, Miyagi says that the message of Antigone “is needed in the current moment.” At the same time, though, the director offers a very Japanese interpretation of the play, in effect re-enacting a Buddhist celebration of the dead – paper lanterns with lit candles inside float on the water, which symbolizes the ambiguous, shifting border between life and death.
This on occasion proved a distancing sensibility, which distracted me from some of the arguments over conflicting duties that in many productions form an intellectual spine of the play. There was also an unexpected prologue at odds with the usual tone of the tragedy, in which the performers, speaking a heavily accented English, quickly summarized the plot, accompanied by a kind of comic pantomime.
These approaches jolted Western expectations for this ancient Greek tragedy, inducing occasional confusion and impatience, requiring adjustments. Still, there were just as many moments that inspired deep emotions: Yes, pity, maybe fear…. but also awe at the haunting beauty.
By Sophocles, Translation by Shigetake Yaginuma
Directed by Satoshi Miyagi
A Production of Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC)
Adapted by Park Avenue Armory and Presented in Collaboration with The Japan Foundation
Hiroko Tanakawa, Composer
Junpei Kiz, Space Designer
Kayo Takahashi, Costume Designer
Koji Osako, Lighting Designer
Kyoko Kajita, Hair and Makeup
Cast: Maki Honda and Micari as Antigone, Kazunori Abe and Kouichi Ohtaka as Creon, Yuumi Sakakibara and Asuka Fuse as Ismene, Daisuke Wakana and Yoneji Ouchi as Haemon, Soichiro Yoshiue and Takahiko Watanabe as Tiresesias, Tsuyoshi Kijima and Katsuhiko Konagaya as guard, Tsuyoshi Kjima z pdsizf, Keita Mishima as Polyneices, Morimas Takeishi as Eteocles.
Running time: 105 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $35 – $175
Antigone is on stage and the Park Avenue Armory through October 6, 2019