September 4, 2003

Oedipus's Daughter

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As usual at this time of year, the local arts scene has been infiltrated by the world of the New Student Reading Project. Last semester, the class of 2007 was assigned Sophocles’s Antigone as the book to ruin their pre-frosh summer with the burden of mandatory reading. In the following month, however, these students will finally see why this classic came in the mail all those weeks ago.

The Center for Theatre Arts’ production of the assigned book is set to breathe life into words that many Cornell newbies have, no doubt, skim-read at best.

“We are trying to capture the theatrical spirit of the play,” said director David Feldshuh, Professor of Theatre Arts and Artistic Director of the production.

Much like 2002’s freshman reading project book, Frankenstein, Antigone’s main themes are what has given the play such contemporary relevance. The story is one that highlights the issue of how an individual’s moral conscience can often be overlooked in light of professional obligations.

This dilemma — brought to light by the battle between the victim Antigone and her uncle, the new King, Creon — is one that will inevitably spawn comparisons to current political and philosophical debates.

One of the new student reading project’s objectives is to create a shared evaluation of the book; the first steps of this took place during orientation through a large symposium and small group discussions. The CTA’s production of Antigone should further the students’ evaluation while inevitably providing a top-quality night of entertainment that is so frequently displayed by the theatre department.

What the students and theatre-goers alike will in fact see, is Feldshuh’s own adaptation of the play, which he wrote last spring.

In it’s 2000-plus years of existence, Antigone is perhaps one of the most commonly adapted texts. The play’s context and most prevalent issues have lent themselves to comparison with numerous significant moments of the 20th century, making for some interesting adaptations.

A.R. Gurney’s Another Antigone is set in 1983 at “an American University at the height of the Cold War” and plots a traditionalist classics teacher faced with the dilemma of a student wanting credit for adapting Antigone into a nuclear-arms crisis setting.

Athol Fugard’s The Island is set in apartheid South Africa as two political prisoners plan to perform their own adapted version of Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, for the prison guards and their fellow inmates.

In all cases a struggle against an authoritative power is highlighted.

Feldshuh notes his play will be as true to the text as previous adaptations, and despite having some modern-day aspects, still very much takes “a classic approach” without making any explicit connections with the current political situations.

The director notes how he functionally adapted the text to music with all the text in iambic pentameter and with the majority of the music performed live with a very contemporary sound.

Visually, the set includes large bomb-struck walls and the costumes are worn down and torn, creating the post-apocalyptic world in which the play takes place. The play, which forms the last third of Sophocles’s monumental Oedipus trilogy occurs in the direct aftermath of the disintegration of the Theban king, his family, and his country. Antigone is in many ways notable for its deviation from the usual tragic form. There is no curse or prophecy on the heroine, a lack of a clear flaw, and the personal is placed on an equal footing with the political. Antigone herself is a normal person and a rebel: she even berates the chorus.

At the same time as having the feel of a contemporary tragedy, Feldshuh did not want to make the adaptation one that is “literally contemporary,” but instead a performance that allows the audience to make their own analogies, rather than have them thrown in their face.

The first three days of rehearsals were seven hour sessions dedicated solely to performing with masks; one of the truly authentic Greek aspects of the play and a particularly difficult style of performance that involves exaggerated body gestures to compliment the larger-than-life mask expressions. The masks themselves were designed by Norm Johnson, professor of acting at Ithaca College, and are in a Picasso-esque style.

Feldshuh says it has been a privilege to work with such a dedicated cast. The play will run September 18-20th and then 25-27th in the Kiplinger Theatre at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The play is approximately an hour and a half in length and tickets are priced at eight dollars for students and ten for other members of the community.

For those who may not make it to Feldshuh’s adaptation, another original performance of Antigone may just jump out at you around campus. The Whistling Shrimp improvisation comedy group will be performing interpretations of Antigone ranging from 15 seconds to 5 minutes in length on Ho Plaza and the Arts Quad. They will culminate with a similar performance on Tuesday, September 8, at 8 PM in the Robert Purcell Community Center. The aim of the project is to get an active freshmen audience involved with boiling the play down to its core issues, to fit a short play.

“We felt like treating the serious business of Antigone with a little levity,” said Resident Assistant Emily Sharpe ’05, who along with three other RA’s chose to further the freshman reading experience for their residents.

Archived article by Tom Britton