Although “Antigone” has Greek roots, and the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s new production was adapted by a French playwright during World War II, the play didn’t actually start to click for director Karen Paisley until she looked at it with American eyes.
Specifically, looking at the title protagonist as an American icon.
“The Statue of Liberty has always been an iconic figure for me,” Paisley said. “In my imagination, if the Statue of Liberty were a teenager and walked out of the sea to stand on the land, she would be Antigone — because some things are worth fighting to save, and some are worth dying for.”
Therefore, the MET’s version of “Antigone,” opening Sept. 14, is a far cry from the Syria-set version Paisley had first imagined or its ancient Greek origins. She calls it the “American Antigone,” complete with teenagers in hoodies, basketball, M-16s and chalk drawings.
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While the togas and swords of Sophocles’ original play are gone, the story is the same, about these children of the original mother-lover himself, Oedipus. After her brothers die in their battle for the throne, Antigone is torn between law and duty. She engages in a battle of wills with her uncle Creon, the ruler of Thebes, who has decreed that one brother’s body must go unburied. She chooses to defy his edict and give him the dignity of a burial — accepting the criminal consequences of doing so.
“Antigone” kicks off the new season for the MET, which includes several reinventions of other classic tales: Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” (another exploration into the myths of a world power, in this case Celtic/British king Cymbeline); “Defying Gravity,” about the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion; Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” a spin on the King Solomon tale; “Anna in the Tropics,” where a reading of “Anna Karenina” starts a revolution in 1929 Florida; and the musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” A Halloween and Christmas special (“The Weir” and a depiction of the radio broadcast “It’s a Wonderful Life”) round out the season.
This adaptation of “Antigone” is the 1944 Jean Anouilh play, which originally starred Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. A metaphor for the French resistance to the Nazi occupation at the time, Anouilh’s adaptation already modernized the 2,000-year-old play. But Paisley is taking it a step further.
“Some of the things that we’re doing are certainly not things that Jean Anouilh thought we would be doing,” she said. “Some of the choices I’ve made have surprised me, because I didn’t know I was going to make those. That’s kind of cool.”
Of course, no matter how new an adaptation is, the actors are still stepping into iconic characters.
“It’s hard, in my mind, approaching a character like this, because you put it on a pedestal,” said Elise Campagna, who plays the title character (and coincidentally auditioned with an Anouilh monologue). “How can you ever do justice to this? But then, as we got into rehearsal, and breaking things down into really human parts, the fact that all of these characters are very human and have good and bad things about them — that’s what made it so much more approachable.”
It helps that even though it’s a tragedy, the play has moments of levity. There has to be humor, Paisley said. Otherwise, it’s easy to get caught up in the darkness of the moral argument. She and her cast have taken steps to give the audience permission to laugh from the very beginning of the show, balancing out the serious questions posed by the characters’ choices.
“Creon and Antigone are cut from the same freaking cloth,” said Andy Penn, who plays Creon. “They’re just at different places in their lives, and, because of that, they find themselves at odds. It’s amazing if you really take apart what each of them is saying to another, they’re not that different from each other.”
“It’s a lot about choices and how choices can cast you in a role — essentially what you represent through those choices,” Campagna added.
“Antigone” runs Sept. 14-Oct. 1 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. See metkc.org or call 816-569-3226.
▪ “A Lie of the Mind,” presented by the Kansas City Actors Theatre through Oct. 1 at the City Stage at Union Station. Sam Shepard’s critically lauded tale of two families grappling with the repercussions of spousal abuse explores complicated family love amidst dysfunction.
▪ “We Shall Not Be Moved: The Student Sit-Ins of 1960,” Sept. 19 through Oct. 22 at the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center. The theater follows up last summer’s “The Nine Who Dared” with another true story of civil rights, this time students at AT&T College in North Carolina who inspired a new generation of young African-Americans with nonviolent protests.