Burying the Dead in Fire Throws

fire-throws-playOnce upon a time, I was in love with Antigone’s story. You know her, Oedipus’s rebellious daughter, the one who thwarted King Creon and came to a tragic end. But over time, reading it again and again, I grew tired of it, began to see her as too egotistical, too self-serving in her sacrifice. I came to believe that she was the sort of young woman who would always annoy the chief of state, and if Creon had not left one of her brothers unburied, she would have found some other excuse to rebel. In the latest version of her tale, Fire Throws, performed by the Ripe Time company, writer and director Rachel Dickstein works hard to make Antigone a more sympathetic figure.

Dickstein adds another character to the cast, a sort of Antigone 2, who watches the action and explains how things might have gone otherwise, remarking mid-way through the play: “So proud. So determined…. What a majestic queen you could have become.” This doubling of the central character sometimes has a didactic feel, and, although it is clearly central to Dickstein’s vision, may be a theatrical error. Dickstein explains the reason for having two Antigones in her program notes: “I’ve chosen to shine light on an interior psychology of character not usually foregrounded in traditional Greek drama.”

As the audience enters the theatre, the two Antigones are on stage already in separate areas, dancing a lovely inner-directed dance (as if listening to a music we cannot hear). It is stunning and dream-like. And many of the moments in this work have deep visual impact. Brilliant costumes, lighting, video, and live musicians all mesh to create a highly dramatic visual and sound experience. It’s the Antigone story itself that seems somewhat wooden and tired, and even mildly unbelievable. Or at least dated.

Ripe Time’s mission is to “explore the meeting ground between dance and theatre,” and in Fire Throws they achieve a very beautiful stage event. Greek tragedy no doubt involved rhythmic movement, particularly by the chorus, but classical scholars usually claim that there is no way of knowing exactly how this was performed. And so in most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy, the chorus stands about awkwardly declaiming verse, occasionally moving to another part of the stage. Here they rush about, dance, strike poses, and make such stunning moves that one feels, yes, this may be what it was like 2500 years ago. There’s a quality of both ritual and excitement to the performance that energizes the story and moves it forward with real emotion, at least in the dance segments.

Choreographer Patty Gallagher is wonderfully talented. She brings to this story ferocity and grace, using Balinese dance moves from a tradition where, as she explains, “the power of the gods manifests itself in the body of the performer.” She has trained this company in the particular rhythms and dance vocabulary of the Balinese Baris dance, a fierce war-like energy that works well in the Theban story, where two brothers kill each other on the battlefield.

That Dickstein claims to be both the writer and director of Fire Throws is slightly misleading; more than two thirds of the text performed is straight out of Sophocles, from the Fitts and Fitzgerald translation. I suppose she justifies authorship based on her radical interpretation, which involves a kind of dream atmosphere, where from the beginning Antigone is already in her death cell, watching flames throw shadows on the wall, a sort of post-modern treatment that combines a Platonic idea of reality with a mythic take on the meaning of “the person inside the icon,” as Dickstein describes her.

This is all very theoretical. What actually works is the stunning energy of the dancers, the atonal music (Jewlia Eisenberg’s score performed by Charming Hostess), the mood of doom, the sheer physical beauty of the production, and the raw power of characters caught in a Sophoclean tragedy.

What doesn’t work is the convoluted attempt to bring some new meaning to the narrative. It’s not that such an attempt might not be fruitful, it’s just that this one isn’t. Dickstein doesn’t trust her audience sufficiently, and so she throws words on a scrim -- risk, memory, rules, history, chains, passion -- at the start of the play lest we miss what the themes are. She has Antigone 2 explain motivations to us, such as, “I thought that was how I could control my story -- to die.” She wants this story to be some sort of feminist celebration of “one iconic woman’s desire and drive.” In truth, it suggests that like any fanatic, Antigone’s single-minded drive is anti-life. She rejects the love of her sister and her fiancé in order to be a martyr. She demands from Creon that she be killed.

The acting is the least strong performance element; whereas both Antigones are at times moving, the actor playing Creon is always over the top, stiff, angry, and ultimately false. I don’t know whether he was directed to scream most of his speeches, or whether that was his choice. Whatever. He’s more like an angry villain puppet than a human, and this removes any possible pity we might feel for him at the end.

So it’s a mixed experience: visually wonderful, even at times thrilling, but the cumulative effect of the 75-minute performance is not emotionally fulfilling. Nonetheless, I would recommend Fire Throws. It’s a brave attempt to bring more theatrical and technical elements onto the stage in order to insert new life into a Greek tragedy, reworking an old story with a dangerous and provocative heroine. - Victoria Sullivan

Fire Throws plays at the 3LD Art & Technology Center Theatre, 80 Greenwich Street at Rector, through March 28.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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