By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
Quintessence Theatre Group's mission is to tangle with the classics, and this time, they tackle Jean Anouilh's wartime adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone. A response to Nazi occupation of France, the tragedy, as reimagined for a 20th-century audience, trades the wrath of the gods for existential dilemma, allowing man and woman to blunder about on their own, making terrible decisions for terrible reasons.
Antigone, you may recall, is the daughter of Oedipus and daughter/granddaughter of Jocasta, both dead. Antigone's uncle Creon claimed Thebes' throne in their wake, and her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, killed each other on the battlefield. It's a bad scene, and doesn't get any better when Creon declares Polynices a traitor, refuses him a proper burial, and discovers Antigone burying him anyway. Anouilh's Creon is a bureaucrat, Antigone an impulsive kid with big ideas, and both confuse pride with sacrifice.
Anouilh, by way of Jeremy Sams' translation, has a sense of humor about the proceedings, most obviously in speeches by The Prologue, a fine John Williams, who serves as chorus with a louche, martini-swilling, Mack-the-Knife sheen. Director Alexander Burns adopts a presentational style, nodding at the play's classical roots, but taking on a Brechtian undertone throughout (Brecht also adapted the story, though after the war), with actors addressing the audience as often as each other. But this approach stiffens the action, making it more didactic, less imperative.
Luckily, Burns has a top-notch Antigone and Creon in Lavita Shaurice (a 2011 Barrymore nominee) and Robert Jason Jackson. Wiry Shaurice sports a forward-thrusting shock of hair as unruly as her spirit. When she's unsure, she twists her mouth to the side and widens her eyes like a child, balls her hands into fists when frustrated, raises her voice every chance she gets. Jackson, in turn, remains calm throughout, wielding his restraint like a weapon, and reasoning his way to doom with a true functionary's resolve.
As an aside, Burns' royal family is African American, and their subjects and soldiers - minus The Prologue, who operates independently, anyway - are white. I don't think this is a swipe at the Obamas, or that Creon is modeled on an African despot; if the family were white or cast for color-blindness, the choice wouldn't even garner attention. But it's worth a mention, if only because this is such a political piece and Burns, a careful director. Perhaps the real point is that there's never a shortage of oppressive regimes from which to draw parallels. Whether Theban, French, Syrian or Congolese, ethnicities are interchangeable; human nature remains the same.
Presented by Quintessence Theatre Group, Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave., through March 25. Tickets: $15- $30. Information: 215-640-6055 or www.QuintessenceTheatre.org.