One of the problems with Greek mythology is that it often seems so remote. The people don't feel real, the gods are aloof, and the stories tend toward the didactic. We continue to tell these tales, but something often gets lost in the translation to the modern world, making the lessons of the toga-wearing classes easy to dismiss.
Not so at the Guthrie. One of the many triumphs in The Burial at Thebes, which opened over the weekend, is the play's uncanny ability to bridge the ancient and modern worlds. Using a version written by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, director Marcela Lorca has created a production that feels timeless. More impressive than its timelessness, however, is its timeliness. It's the right story to be telling now, because it's classically tragic and eerily relevant.
The Burial at Thebes is a deft re-working of Sophocles's Antigone (not to be confused with Euripides's Antigone , which has a much happier ending). Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes, who is already dead by the time the tale begins. She wants to give a proper burial to the body of her brother, Polynices, who died fighting for the throne now occupied by king Creon. Unfortunately, Creon considers Polynices a traitor, and has decreed that anyone who tries to bury his body will be put to death. Antigone defies Creon's order, forcing his hand and making him follow through with a law that turns out to be cosmically ill-conceived.
The action takes place deep in a catacomb of tombs, a crucible of death if there ever was one. Antigone (played by Sun Mee Chomet) is hopping mad from the opening scene onward, and just gets angrier and more defiant as the play progresses. Stephen Yoakam plays Creon, who in the beginning seems like a congenial, well-liked and -respected leader, but who soon finds himself vexed by Antigone's defiance and trapped by his need to appear strong in the face of mounting doubt, even among his most loyal subjects. Complicating matters is the fact that Antigone is engaged to Creon's son, Haemon (played by Ernest Bentley). What's a king to do?
Though the drama is well played, the true star of the show is the Chorus (Lee Mark Nelson, Richard Ooms, T. Mychael Rambo, Joe Nathan Thomas, Robert Robinson—photo above), which sings an extraordinary, gospel-inspired score composed by J.D. Steele. The music sounds both ancient and modern, tribal and operatic. All the voices blend beautifully, but the clincher is the addition of Robert Robinson, who at times seems to literally connect the choreography onstage with the heavens. In the final scene, when Creon is screaming in agony over his tragic fate, Robinson is singing behind him, transforming his anguished cries into an operatic appeal to the heavens. Honestly, it's the most extraordinary moment of theater I've experienced in a long time, and as close to a perfect dramatic moment as you'll ever see.
The other moments of transcendent brilliance come from Greta Oglesby, who plays the blind prophet, Tiresias. You're not going to see a better prophesy of doom than the one she delivers to Creon; it's pure theatrical thunder. A nice contrast to all this doom and gloom is Brian Sostek's comical performance as the Messenger, whose levity is refreshing—because the other problem with myths is that they're so darn serious all the time.
A word about the language: Considering that Seamus Heaney is a poet, the dialogue is surprisingly colloquial. Many lines sing with the sort of mouth music you'd expect from a poet, but others sound a bit odd. When Haemon stomps offstage after pleading with his father to reconsider Antigone's death sentence, Creon yells, "You're a know-nothing!" Then there are the lines that seem to have been inserted to make the modern parallels starkly obvious. A line like "the ones who are surest of themselves are the emptiest vessels," conjures images of at least a few evangelical presidential candidates as well as a recent president or two. Indeed, the recent drama in Texas over the execution of Troy Davis, despite worldwide appeals to spare the man, including a call for clemency from the Pope himself, is pretty much the story of Antigone . It remains to be seen how the gods will visit their vengeance on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but you'll notice that things haven't been going very well for Perry lately.
Of course, the entire Arab world is demonstrating what happens when dictators oppress their people with too many unreasonable laws. See Antigone for what it has to say about the judicious exercise of power, but enjoy it for its music and melodrama. That, and the fact that it's a tidy 90 minutes long—an exercise in restraint that must also be loudly applauded.
The Burial at Thebes continues through Nov. 6 at the Guthrie Theater, guthrietheater.org.