When Burning Coal Theatre Company approached Ian Finley in 2016 and asked him for a new translation of Sophocles' Antigone, Finley did them one better. Enlisting the help of Alex Tobey, Finley adapted all three Theban Plays into modern forms, using modern idioms and times, as well as modern dress. Whittling down each individual play to roughly one hour, Finley compiled all three into one piece simply titled The Greeks. Burning Coal has opened their production of The Greeks at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh. With a special starting time of 7:00 PM, the production runs roughly three hours, with two intermissions.
Burning Coal has given the task of staging the new work to Alex Tobey; who better than one of the adapters to stage this new play? Tobey and Finley have whittled the cast down to a total of nine: seven actors for the characters themselves, and two actors, one male and one female, to represent the Greek tradition of "The Chorus." Those who have studied the ancient Greek tradition know that the chorus was a crowd, usually, supposedly made up of the townsfolk of the locale of the play, which acted as a sort of narrator, both commenting on the action and moving the play along plot-wise. Especially with the tragedies, since the gory details of the plays were never acted out on stage, the chorus described such atrocities to the audience, commenting on each, and delivering morals and/or results together in unison. Because this has proven to be a bit of a cumbersome tool in a modern play, many adapters have chosen instead to use only one or two voices, rather than a whole multitude. The two Chorus members here were Jonathan Able and Jess Jones.
The three plays are Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Sophocles wrote these plays approximately 500 years BCE, basing them on a pretty heavy-duty tragic premise: that a man would rule Thebes who would kill his father and marry his mother. This decree was handed down to the then-ruler of Thebes, Laius, and his queen, Jocasta, by the local soothsayers; in order to keep such a terrible prophecy from occurring, the couple decided to slay their only son while in infancy. But, the gods intervened and spared the child's life, and thus everything went according to the prophecy. Thebes must have really done something terrible to incur such a wrathful fate from Zeus and Athena.
In Oedipus the King, a plague has befallen Thebes. When the populace pleads with Oedipus (Sean Wellington) to rid them of it, he sends for his seer, Teiresias (George Jack), to explain why Thebes is so put upon. In a most roundabout fashion, Oedipus learns of his true parentage and what he has done. Jocasta (Freyja Sindemark) also learns of her part in this horror, and commits suicide; she and Oedipus have four children. Oedipus blinds himself out of self-loathing, and then commits to self-exile, leaving Jocasta's brother, Creon (Mark Filiaci), to rule alongside his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices. Oedipus takes place in the theater at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), which is the uppermost of three different levels on which this trilogy is staged.
We, the audience, move at intermission to a lower level where food is made available and we sit at tables and chairs. We are now in Colonus; Oedipus and his daughter Antigone (Ellie Barone) arrive, having been wandering for years since they left Thebes. Here they will meet with the Athenian king, Theseus (Jack), and Oedipus knows that he will die here. Both Creon and Oedipus' younger son, Polynices (Benjamin Apple), come to plead with Oedipus to return to Thebes, but both leave alone; Oedipus knows that they only came to get him to come "home" in order to gain the peace that his death will bring from the gods. When Oedipus dies, he simply disappears; only Theseus knows how. He returns Antigone and her sister, Ismene (Chloe Apple), to Thebes.
At our second intermission, we move even further into the nether regions of CAM Raleigh, to a small, empty room ringed by stools. Antigone is played out here. Having promised an oath to her brother Polynices that she will bury him if he dies in battle, Antigone (who is only 15 years old) defies her uncle Creon in order to keep that promise. Creon has declared Polynices the villain in this war, and has placed an order of death on anyone who attempts to bury him properly, so that his spirit will wander through all eternity. Antigone does so anyway, and in order to prevent an uprising at her death, Creon entombs her alive. Creon's son, Haemon (B. Apple), is in love with Antigone, however, and he begs his father to release her. Creon refuses his son; his wife, Eurydice (Sindemark), he cannot refuse. So, he takes guards and goes to the tomb to free Antigone, only to find that Haemon has beaten him there to discover that Antigone, to avoid starving to death, has hanged herself. At this horror, Haemon tries to kill Creon, but decides instead to kill himself. Eurydice, upon hearing this, also kills herself. Creon is left alone, to beg for the gods' forgiveness. As the Chorus states, tragedy must play out.
This takes about three full hours to unfold. You can see all three shows at once or opt to see them on different nights. But if you are a fan of the Greek classics, be forewarned: whenever an adapter attempts to whittle a two-plus-hours long play into less than an hour, a great deal is lost in translation. I found that, in this instance, both the modernity of the adaptation, and the time constraints, left very much to be desired. What disappears is the scope and majesty of the Greek format. What is left of these plays is little more than simple plot; and while each actor gave a good performance, there was no longer any there there.
Wellington as Oedipus seemed to do the best work on stage, showing considerable emotion as Oedipus realized what the gods had done, but also showing his character's calm, rational, and peaceful demeanor while at Colonus. We felt that Oedipus had made his peace with what occurred, shown through a real rationality of thought in planning his final days. Wellington portrayed Oedipus' conversations with Creon, his son Polynices, and Theseus as calm and sober, carefully thought out ideas by a rational mind.
Creon seemed to be the one character in this new translation to survive the horror the gods have laid upon Thebes. While he is a man who has had rule thrust upon him, Filiaci showed how Creon's demeanor changed from a man who is trying to cope, to a man who is trying to battle all the horror that is piling up around him. As the only man left standing at the end, he becomes perhaps the most tragic figure of them all.
But let us return to the translation, which seems to be terribly forced in places. I blame the placing of the plays in modern times as much as I do the whittling. Too much has been added in order to achieve the result. Anachronism heaps upon anachronism: Haemon uses a gun instead of a sword to commit hari kari, without explanation. Oedipus and Tiresias wear sunglasses to cover their blindness, when simply guiding them, either by a Chorus member or by Antigone, would serve — without introducing seemingly self-serving modernisms. Creon addresses Thebes over a loudspeaker — where was the need for that? And everyone is dressed in modern street clothes. Oedipus the King in a Hawaiian shirt is merely silly. And the addition of flashlights, and the dropping of a smart phone into the middle of a Greek tragedy — it's just blatant anachronism. These problems serve more to detract from the play than they do to make it "accessible."
Burning Coal presents The Greeks at CAM Raleigh through Sunday, June 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.