Austin audiences are no strangers to unknown variables. New theatre companies tend to pop up in our fertile town like bluebonnets by Mopac in March. Nonetheless, I felt a bit disoriented as I sat in a folding chair at Casa de Luz to see Antigone, the first offering from Oh Dragon Theatre Company, freshly hatched by a cluster of recent St. Edward's theatre grads. With no basis for comparison – no past seasons from the company, few past roles from its actors, and no past directing work from Nathan Brockett (his acting talent is well-known) – Antigone was a big unknown. The production boasts some pleasant surprises – namely a terrific performance from Danielle Evon Ploeger in the title role – but overall, it's an uneven debut for Oh Dragon.
We know the ancient tragedy of Antigone, that wretched daughter of King Oedipus: After her brothers Polynices and Eteocles kill each other in a civil war, their tyrannical uncle Creon makes an example of traitorous Polynices by refusing to bury his body, a grave affront to the gods, family, and spirit of the dead. Antigone, determined to do the right thing, throws earth over the body, and Creon punishes her with death.
This production cuts and rearranges the English translation of Jean Anouilh's 1944 French adaptation of Sophocles' fifth century BC original. Though the narrative flows smoothly in performance, I wondered why Brockett, who aimed to reduce Anouilh's text to "building blocks as perfectly simple and complex as love, hate, loyalty, betrayal, and fate," chose not to write his own version. Using Anouilh's existential Antigone in a production meant to eradicate political shadings and highlight familial emotions seems problematic. For Anouilh, Antigone's death wasn't self-sacrifice in the name of reverence, love, and loyalty, but rather an action devoid of significance, a selfish inevitability. As the Chorus says, "In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That makes for tranquility."
Oh Dragon's Antigone has moments of beauty and clarity that reinforce its actor-centric mission, notably several detached, gritty speeches from Anna Schatte's Chorus and Kel Sanders' hand-wringing turn as a nervous guard. As Antigone, Ploeger fills the space with an impressive emotional register that, unfortunately, the other cast members can't quite match. She commands attention even in her quietest moments, complemented by Brockett's lovely live performance of "Idumea" on mandolin. The focus on actors is evident, too, in the show's minimal technical elements, though the set, while clever in its multipurpose use of a bed, forces a lot of awkward staging. Antigone may not have been a perfect premiere, but I see a spark in this new company; I have high hopes that Oh Dragon will set future productions on fire.
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