The trouble with Greek tragedies is that they tend to be Greek to us. Losing too much in translation isn’t a problem with the intelligent and relevant The Dreams of Antigone, now in its world premiere at Trinity Repertory Company (through October 26).
Its first version was written by the theater’s artistic director, Curt Columbus, and the play has come to have an unusual co-credit added: “& Trinity Rep’s Resident Acting Company.” Honesty like that is remarkable in theater.
Yet the result, 85 brisk minutes, is not at all like a play written by committee. The final staging is a lucid telling of a complex story. Relying on the Sophocles versions of the Greek legends and incorporating smatterings of his text, the play reconstructs the conflicts of the House of Cadmus. Creon is the king of Thebes, who feels duty bound to have Antigone executed. Originally titled Antigone Anew, the play uses the freedom of dream life — that of Creon as well as her — to go over encounters and confrontations, conversations that occurred and some that might have if ghosts could talk.
Although there are many supporting characters, the central story is simple, taking place amidst the fluted columns and marble rubble of Tristan Jeffers’s set design. Antigone (Rachael Warren) buries one of her two brothers — they have fallen in battle, killed by each other. Such a ritual had been forbidden by King Creon (Fred Sullivan Jr.) because the young man had led the rebellion against him. Despite Creon’s sympathy and understanding of her loyalty, he cannot tolerate her defiance of his first edict as ruler. Otherwise, the center will not hold, as W.B. Yeats would later fear, in a more broadly existential regard — anarchy would be loosed upon Thebes.
The difficulty of succeeding with an adaptation of Antigone can hardly be overstated. I’ve seen more than my share of them and can’t recall one that has so fully developed the strands of sub-themes and character relationships that whip about and spark like downed power lines. Most productions go straight for the money: girl meets conscience, king meets both, king kills rebellious niece, regret ensues. Trinity audiences have more in store.
A word of warning: this play is Rated P. Theatergoers seriously allergic to presentational theater, with actors addressing the audience, sometimes in stentorian tones, should bring their EpiPens. This is a modern update, but it is a Greek tragedy.
As the lights go up, the first words are “We the people,” and fragments of the preamble to the US Constitution are recited to us by the ensemble/chorus. They repeat and overlap reminders of such matters of concern — and collective responsibility — as “a more perfect union” and “secur[ing] the blessings of liberty.” Serious stuff, appropriately declaimed with jut-jawed firmness. As with the first Greek choruses, who addressed audiences that were thoroughly acquainted with mythic history, this initial address is intended not to provide information but to remind listeners of what they already know.