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Monday, February 23, 2015

Close-Knit Group Goes to Poland to Work on Antigone

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 9:06 AM

click to enlarge Antigone (Madeline H.D. Brown) talks with her sister, Ismene ( Hannah Donovan) - PHOTO BY CHASE RAMSEY
  • Photo by Chase Ramsey
  • Antigone (Madeline H.D. Brown) talks with her sister, Ismene ( Hannah Donovan)
Paige Rogers, who co-founded the Cutting Ball Theatre with her husband Rob Melrose, would like to go off and get a Master in Fine Arts. But she doesn’t have that sort of luxury right now. So she asked her husband for a list of plays he’d give someone to direct who was trying to get their MFA. The one that kept pulling at her was Antigone, Sophocles play about the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, who buries her brother even though Creon, the king and Jocasta’s brother, has forbidden it.

Rogers has loved the avant-garde work of Teatr ZAR and how they emphasize whole body movement and singing, since she saw them perform in Los Angeles in 2007. This summer she got to take Daniel Sullivan, the translator of Antigone, and her whole cast, to Brzezinka, Poland, to spend a couple weeks in the woods working closely with ZAR- the first time in more than 10 years that an American theater group has been invited to do such a thing.

Rogers sat down to talk to us about singing “Happy Birthday” in harmony, learning to see Creon’s perspective and how it was hard to talk about what Antigone ate for breakfast. The interview is edited for length and clarity.

What was it about Antigone that made you want to direct it?

Rob teases me about this – I really like stories about families – my current favorite play is August: Osage County, and one of favorite of all time is Uncle Vanya. It was tricky – these two girls have two brothers, and their father is their half brother and they’re all kind of freaks in society, and no one knows their experience but them. Then their mother kills herself, and their father blinds himself and eventually he dies. But they’ve got each other at least, but just 24 hours before the play begins, the two brothers kill each other fighting over the kingdom. Just supposing Jocasta and Oedipus were not related – still their mother hangs herself and their father blinds himself. It just hit me so hard these girls only ones left of a four-sibling unit that really understood a similar experience. My production kind of focuses on Ismene a little bit. She begins the show and ends it too.

It seems like Greek dramas can be intimidating. What was the most intimidating about doing this show?

We started working on it last April and we did just movement and singing and we talked about the play. Daniel was busy translating it. When we got to Poland in August he had a script ready for us able to do. Thank God we had a long, long process because at first we all felt kind of dumb talking about these iconic characters in terms of what they had for breakfast. That’s how we’re taught to do plays in America, in a Stanislavskian reality-based way. Now they know those characters so well, and the translator has really made their own selves come over onto the character.

It’s really been great because the woman playing Antigone and the woman playing the chorus lead have established this very interesting relationship between their two characters. The chorus lead is Creon’s right hand man, right? Has to be on his side and the side of the polis and wanting the best for society. But those two actors have been through so much together and they’re the same age, they are assuming things like they knew each other as children and grew up together. The chorus lead, her main goal is to speak for polis and to support Creon, but she has this empathy, and she teases Antigone at one point. It’s an interesting moment where she says, “Oh come on! Aren’t you taking yourself a little seriously?”

The interesting thing to me working on it for so long is how much I see Antigone’s perspective and Ismene’s perspective, and I totally see Creon’s perspective also. I read 11 translations before I asked Daniel to work on it. I had these strong feelings about Creon when I read it, like, “God, what a dick.” But I don’t feel that way anymore. I see him as representing policemen in society who say, “Look, we have these laws a reason for it. We all go by them so we can live the way we do.” I see his point.

How does Antigone fit in with your theme for the season of injustice?

In the beginning, it was like of course it fits in because it was one of the first plays that shows the individual against the state. Originally, we had said the theme of the season was justice. And I always think, “Is justice done to Polynices by burying his body, and does Antigone feel justice has been served when she buries the body?” In terms of Creon and how he says we have to have these rules or society is falling apart and your king yesterday just killed his brother and that whole family has been so messed up, so let’s just stop all that, and let’s put some rules in place. So is justice served in that he says quite clearly nobody can bury the body and if they do I’m going to kill them? And he does.

Haemon has this beautiful scene where he says in Daniel’s version, “Just give a little bit.” He knows Antigone’s screwed socially, he was engaged to her, he can’t marry her, but just don’t kill her. So when he goes in to talk to his father, he’s fighting so strongly for her not to be killed because in his mind that’s justice. It’s fate how she goes against the society, but can you have mercy not to kill her? And, of course, you see his side entirely because it would be just if Creon said, “I won’t kill you.” But Creon says no, how can I have order in this city I just took over and is in complete chaos if I don’t go by these rules that I believe in so strongly? There are just so many themes of what’s just and what’s not in the play itself. To me the whole play is the weighing of what’s injustice and what’s justice and from whose perspective.

Why did you go to Poland and what did you get out of it?

So how do I learn what ZAR does and incorporate it into what I do? It was tricky. First we had to get the invitation, which we did, then we had to raise money, almost didn’t, then we went over. Then I asked these members of ZAR, and I know them by now because I’ve been a groupie for all these years, “Could you come work with my group?” They come out to the forest, and I mean the forest, we started working with them. They get together as a group, and they work hard and long hours without a break – they just keep going, they just push themselves. My group did not complain – they were so sore, they couldn‘t walk down the stairs in the morning, but we kept creating every day more material to draw from. For example, one assignment was go away and work by yourselves a little bit and come back and show us a representation of the two brothers killing themselves. OK, they went away and came back, and two of these pieces I have them in our piece, and not around the killing. It reminds me of box of See’s chocolate – you have all these options.

All my actors had to be able to sing, had to be able to act, and had to be able to move – that was pretty tricky. We saw billions of people- we had them read from the script, and then if they did OK, we asked them to sing “Happy Birthday,” and then our literary manager and I sing in harmony at the end of it, so we sing in harmony around you. Those people who couldn’t hold their harmony, they had to go. But those who did, they had an assignment, which was do a one to two-minute physical piece based on a dream you’ve had. So they’re all pretty much triple threats.

Antigone has a gala opening  Saturday, February 21, It runs through March 22 at the Cutting Ball Theater in residence at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St.. Tickets are $10-50. For more information, please call (415) 525-1205. 

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Emily Wilson


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