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Present-day 'Antigone' proves timeless

Few plays are forever relevant, and attempts to make them so can amount to untold dramatic indignities. Fortunately, Richard McElvain chose a sturdy play to adapt and made bold writing choices in his re-imagining of Sophocles's "Antigone" at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

McElvain sets the action in a modern-day, war-torn society, complete with press conferences, political coverups, and street-wise vernacular. We see Creon, ruler of Thebes, blustering through a photo-op and a citywide decree of victory over a civil war insurgence. Creon's chorus is made up of Brooks Brothers-clad staff members who swarm about him, affirming his every move.

Nearby is Antigone -- daughter of Oedipus and sister of two fallen soldiers from opposite sides of the conflict. She learns of Creon's executive order prohibiting consecration and burial of one of her brothers. When Antigone defies the order and later refuses to repent, Creon refuses to pardon her, thereby setting off a chain of tragic events, including two blood-soaked suicides.

Despite the title, "Antigone" proves to be as much about Creon and his unilateral decisions as it does about the woman he punishes for not changing her mind. McElvain's adaptation deftly presents two compelling, if unreasonable, characters. Marianna Bassham infuses Antigone with a passionate recklessness that is not hysterical, while McElvain, who also performs in the production, pounds out Creon's moral clarity with a resolve that would be admirable if it were not so frightening.

It's impossible to look through McElvain's forcibly modern lens and not see the parallels with today's newspaper headlines, but his adaptation gives equal time to the universal dangers of inflexibility and insulation.

This Nora Theatre Company production is not without missteps, however -- the most glaring of which is the wandering format for the delivery of the chorus sections. Greek choruses have long been the recipients of creative license in terms of structure, cadence, and rhythm. But there's free form and then there's free fall. The quasi-sung, quasi-choreographed sections here are misguided at best. One limp segment, combined with the corporate costumes, drifts closer to a tableau from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" than anyone could have intended.

The members of the chorus also play a range of individual roles and more than redeem themselves in the other portrayals. Donna Sorbello is masterful as Eurydice, wife of Creon, generating tremendous emotion out of the simplest movement. Eric Mello conjures eerie tenderness as the unburied brother Polynices, and Jim Spencer captures the conflicted essence of Haemon, son of Creon and lover of Antigone.

Also, Sylvia Ann Soares is effectively disturbing as the prophecy-spewing Tiresias. Rounding out the cast is Ed Peed, who plays the Guard with occasionally too much flair, and Jessica Burke in the essentially thankless role of Ismene, the sister of Antigone who embodies what obedient women "should" do in society.

McElvain's adaptation is raw and urgent, providing a fresh context for the message Sophocles intended so many centuries ago: It takes more courage to admit error than it does to show resolve. McElvain's update brings that message forth in a most graphic way.

Play by Sophocles; original adaptation by Richard McElvain. Directed by: Daniel Gidron. Set, Brynna Bloomfield. Lights, Kathy Peter. Costumes, Jacqueline Dalley. Original Music and Sound, Dewey Dellay. Lights, Kathy Peter. Presented by the Nora Theatre Company.
At: Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through Oct. 3; 617-491-2026.

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