'Burial at Thebes' is a classic for good reason

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE
  • Updated: October 4, 2011 - 1:10 PM

The Guthrie's production of "The Burial at Thebes" leans on ceremony to illuminate ancient questions.

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Director Marcela Lorca and original composer J.D. Steele on the set of the Guthrie Theater's "The Burial At Thebes"

A devoutly religious woman wants nothing more than to bury her brother. She respects and honors the gods who await him in the underworld; "Religion dictates the burial of the dead," she avers to the king, who claims that state security requires the brother's body not be allowed this superstitious rite.

Could this be "Antigone," the icon of personal liberty? She sounds like a fanatic, the kind of person who might be inclined to argue that the United States committed murder in assassinating an American citizen living in Yemen. Our national security might demand such a move. But Antigone would have countered that the man was first a human and that there is "a higher law" than the state law. It is such a simple, yet infinitely complex, proposition.

These stray thoughts entered the mind in viewing "The Burial at Thebes," Seamus Heaney's adaptation of "Antigone" that opened this weekend at the Guthrie Theater. King Creon demands that the rebel Polyneices, killed in battle against Thebes, be left to rot in the sun as a symbol of what happens to traitors. Antigone, Polyneices' sister, defies the state and pleads for her personal right to honor the rituals of death. Our heart lies naturally with Antigone, and Creon does suffer the consequences of his hubris. Yet, recent events make this eternal dialectic as thorny as ever.

Marcela Lorca's Guthrie production hearkens to the roots of Greek drama, with music, movement and a chorus that both narrates and participates in the tragedy as citizens of Thebes. Monica Frawley's dark, glowering set crumbles with ancient exhaustion as it evokes towering walls of crypts. The music feels essential, the movement far less so.

Composer J.D. Steele's music is reverential yet sweetly melodic -- recognizing both the gravity of this ceremony and the personal poignancy of Antigone's dilemma. Weaving through spoken and sung sections, the chorus -- Robert Robinson, T. Mychael Rambo, Lee Mark Nelson, Richard Ooms and Joe Nathan Thomas -- has seldom seemed so necessary to the telling.

Our sympathetic ambiguity -- that disturbing instinct to see things both ways -- lies in the performances of Sun Mee Chomet as Antigone and Stephen Yoakam as Creon. Lorca draws a fierce character from Chomet, with one speech louder and more defiant than the next. This illustrates passion in her belief, but also a wooden sameness that makes Antigone less approachable. Yoakam's Creon, on the other hand, wears his confidence as an assumption that needn't be proven by bluster. He is a man obsessed, inflexible and brutal. However, Yoakam's Creon flinches ever so slightly with doubt, which opens his vulnerability and reveals the human inside.

Greta Oglesby's strong voice carries the scolding proclamations of the seer Teresias, who condemns Creon's stiff decrees, and Brian Sostek distinguishes his comic portrayal of the guard who discovers Antigone tending to Polyneices' body.

"Antigone," or in this case "Thebes," calls to us from the ages with such nagging and persistent questions. Sophocles' words are not much changed, just as the liturgies of a religious service remain the same each time we visit them. The strength of Lorca's Guthrie production is how these words unlock thoughts and reactions in our own minds. However unsettling that might be.

  • THE BURIAL AT THEBES

    What: By Seamus Heaney, based on Sophocles' "Antigone." Directed by Marcela Lorca.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 7 p.m. Sun.; Selected matinees, 1 p.m. Wed., Sat., Sun. Ends Nov. 6.

    Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.

    Tickets: $24-$62. 612-377-2224 or www.guthrietheater.org.

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