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Antigona Furiosa: A visceral experience

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, February 22, 2012

“Antigona Furiosa” renews the ancient grief and pious fury of the Greek tragedy “Antigone” in light of Argentina’s “Dirty War” disappearances. The play is abstract and dialogue-driven, but has a visual presence so strong it’s almost visceral. As Antigona calls out for the burial of her brother, the cries of the mothers of those executed by the Argentinian government merge voices into a moving furious dirge.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of “Antigone,” the source of conflict is the decree from King Creon of Greece forbidding Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, from performing the funeral rites for her brother Polyneices, who fell in battle against the state.

After proclaiming her innocence based on a higher divine law than Creon’s word, Antigone is walled up and given a noose to hang herself if she so chooses. In essence, the tragedy lies in her fate: She is unable to fulfill her role as a living woman, with a husband or children, but is also unable to join the ranks of the dead, just like her unburied brother. 

Herein lies the connection with the Argentinian kidnappings. Citizens considered too extreme by the Argentinian government from 1976 until 1983 were abducted, questioned and disposed of without a trace. The alarming rate of disappearances spurred the mourning mothers to join together and publicly demand their children, dead or alive, be returned to them. The ambiguity of death or life and the aspect of withholding grief creates a terrifying void in which pain and doubt fester all the worse.

Anton Juan, a professor in the Department of Film, Theater and Television, directs the show. An internationally recognized playwright and director, Juan has been knighted twice by the French government, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres and the Chevalier de l’Ordre National de Merit.

“My goal is to transport audiences into other realities — painful realities — out of their comfort zones to have them see the world with fresh eyes,” Juan said.

Despite their dependencies on a budget and other resources, the production team has developed creatively ever since the show was selected last year.

“It allows you to have an aesthetic based on minimal demands … The concept becomes more essential to what the text wants to say rather than spectacle,” Juan said.

But Juan still took every opportunity to make “Antigona Furiosa” as visually compelling as possible. Inspired by Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” the set is minimalistic and black, mimicking at the same time a swooping wave, a city wall and a pit of death.

Props are distinctly missing from scenes which would appear dependent upon them, such as two gentlemen sitting down to tea, or women tending to their relatives’ corpses. The costumes consist of avant-garde unitards and veils, even further emphasizing the idea of the unknown.

“If you begin from an image and visual expression and you get a sound sense of the body, it moves from the gut to history,” Juan said. “That’s the whole journey.”

The play also masters a musicality in a vocal and physical sense. The dialogue gains a pulse though the rise and fall of monologues and chants. Statements are often punctuated by foot stamps, crow calls and wailing. This play is disorienting in every aspect, but the student actors perform with such earnestness, sincerity and classical awareness, the audience cannot help but be curious about what they have to say.

The play features senior Stephanie Ruas as Antigona, whose brilliant unbridled exposition on pain carries the play through to the end.

“The most challenging part for me was dealing with a script so far from realism,” she said. “Anton was coaching me to bring it to a classical level.”

This is where “Antigona Furiosa” shines. Kevin Sarlo plays both Creon and the leader of the chorus and serves as the comedic relief to Antigona’s outrage. The chorus sporadically mocks Antigona and her piety, but its mockery both amuses and disgusts. Their banter is witty and full of modern references even the least Greek-literate can appreciate, but its cacophonous laughter is sometimes so harshly timed, the audience might not know whether to laugh or cry.

“I repeat ‘nothing’ over and over again. It’s one of my favorite lines in the show,” Sarlo said.

Ruas said her favorite line was one featured later in the play.

“‘The living are the great sepulchers of the dead,’ or something like that,” she said.

The rehearsal process was both a challenge and a pleasure for Ruas and Sarlo.

“I really enjoyed it; I got to work with new people,” Ruas said.

The costumes were a source of motivation for the entire team to hit the gym.

“We’re literally throwing ourselves against the walls,” Sarlo said. “But we’re never offstage, so when you come to the theater, you make new friends.”

As a second semester senior, Sarlo’s experience performing in “Blithe Spirit” in 2010 spurred him to take advantage of his free time.

“I’m having a lot of fun doing this show,” Sarlo said. “And I heard so many stories about Anton, I felt I knew him. He was knighted twice — impressive.”

As for Ruas, her major in Film, Theater and Television is a reflection of her long-term interest in acting.

“I had a class with Anton, and I was really interested in working with him,” she said. “We’ve been working with the representation of the extremes, ways we can push people and ways we can ask questions of people.”

Both Ruas and Sarlo said Juan wanted to make the Greek tragedy pointed and relevant.

“He wanted to take it from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic,” Sarlo said.

“Antigona Furiosa” will be playing at Debartolo Performing Arts Center Feb. 23 to Mar. 4. General admission tickets cost $15. Tickets cost $7 for students.