PROVIDENCE - In the centuries since Sophocles wrote "Antigone," the play has been performed countless times, first in its original Greek and then in languages, cultures, and political situations as far removed from the original as Athens is from Alexandria, Albany, or Alpha Centauri. And yet somehow it remains essentially itself, a play about a young woman choosing to die rather than surrender her sense of what's right to the dictates of her society.
During World War II, "Antigone" became a means for challenging, more or less overtly, the rise of Nazism. During the Vietnam War, it was staged as a protest against the US government. And now, in yet another time and yet another war, it is appearing again, this time in a new guise with a new author - or, more accurately, a new team of authors. For good and ill, "The Dreams of Antigone" is both a fairly faithful adaptation of Sophocles' "Antigone" and a new play that uses Sophocles' tale as the centerpiece of a metastory about the power of theater, created by Curt Columbus and the resident actors in the theater troupe he directs, Trinity Repertory Company.
The plot at Trinity goes essentially the way Sophocles first told it. A brutal civil war between two factions led by Oedipus' sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, has just ended. Their successor as king of Thebes, Creon, buries Eteocles with a hero's honors and declares that anyone seeking to extend similar rites to Polyneices will die a traitor's death.
Antigone, sister to both dead warriors, defies Creon and buries Polyneices. Creon hesitates, then orders her punished - then, when his advisers counsel that the decision is sparking protests and when his own son Haemon, Antigone's fiance, pleads for her life, changes his mind. But mercy comes too late: Antigone kills herself, followed swiftly by Haemon and, when she learns of her son's death, by Creon's wife.
Ordinarily it wouldn't be playing fair for a review to lay out the whole story like this. But, as members of the chorus declare in turn, early on in "Dreams":
"We know how this story ends."
"You know how this story ends."
"How do we find a way for all of us to be surprised?"
"Antigone is going to die."
"But tonight, perhaps she will not."
That's a hint of what's new here. "The Dreams of Antigone" is a play set in ancient Greece about Antigone, but it's also a play set in the modern United States about "Antigone" - and, more broadly, about what happens to plays as they are played out again and again. Even when we know how a story ends, we can still watch it again, still discover truths we did not know or had forgotten, still find ways in which these old themes live anew. "The Dreams of Antigone" brings this idea to the forefront in a surprising, fresh, unexpected but utterly appropriate way at the very end. And no, that part I won't give away.
But I will say that the ideas of "Dreams" are generally more inviting, and more invigorating, than the way they play out onstage. Admirably, Columbus opened up the process of creating the script to the entire company, and from all accounts this collaboration was exciting, inspiring, and rich.
The process came at a price, however: Line by line, the language of this version is too often flabby, flat, or redundant; it sometimes comes dangerously close to sounding like a Method actor's paraphrase of the emotions beneath Sophocles' text, rather than a playwright's purposeful reinvention of the lines themselves. Yes, the ideas of "Antigone" are important, powerful, and complex, with special resonance in an age when we are struggling to define and defend the rights of individuals to challenge the state. But without clear, eloquent language to convey them, the ideas cannot reach us with their full force.
It also feels as if the process of developing the text took time away from the equally valuable process of developing the design and staging of the play. Tristan Jeffers's set is handsomely dilapidated, and William Lane's costumes elegantly refer to classic Greek styles without resorting to toga'd cliches, but the visual elements too seldom cohere to create a rich theatrical effect. It feels as if director Brian McEleney could have used more time to play around with the visual elements and the way the actors move among them - and to let those actors play, too, in order to build a full and convincing world, one with characters that have more than a few tics (a drinking problem here, a power suit there) to make them seem modern as well as ancient.
And yet. There's that last moment, when - still not to spoil anything - we're reminded of the immense power of theater to bring us together as a community, to help us remember the past in a way that will light up the future, and to keep pushing us to figure out what it means to be human. That's heady stuff. And if "The Dreams of Antigone," like "Antigone," goes on to have many future lives, no doubt other voices, other cultures, and other audiences will find new ways to see and hear its truths.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.