Review of The Burial at Thebes at the Sargent Conservatory

    One of the extra benefits of covering the work of the students at Webster University’s Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts is their Capstone Productions. As the name indicates, Capstones are the culminating work of students in the program, in particular the directing students. They select a play that they direct with their fellow students as actors and designers. Occasionally these introduce me to plays I don’t know. Always the director’s approach reveals new aspects even of familiar plays and also is a revelation of the concerns of this younger generation.

    Kylie Ferguson chose Sophocles’ Antigone for her Capstone Production. Antigone, like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, often reappears on stages at times of war and domestic conflict. Ferguson finds this to be such a time. She was particularly drawn to it in the translation by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. 

    Heaney grew up Catholic in Northern Ireland. He knew well the Troubles, the conflict between Catholics and the dominant Protestants. He was moved by the burial ceremonies of one of the Irish Republican Army prisoners who died on a hunger strike, a neighbor of Heaney’s family. Heaney saw the power of the effect of the burial on the community and the parallels to Antigone’s attempt to bury her brother Polyneices. Heaney was moved to change the title of the translation he was working on to The Burial at Thebes.   

    Heaney was on the faculty at Harvard University at the time of 9/11. He was struck by the rhetoric of the Bush administration as it launched the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq. He gives that rhetoric  to Creon, the ruler of Thebes who has forbidden the burial of Polyneices. “If you are not with us, you are against us.”

    Ferguson thought the evacuation from Afghanistan made a fitting finale to the wars that inspired Heaney to write the play. Then, with fine timing, Russia invaded Ukraine. As Ferguson says in her director’s note, “Suddenly, the conflict within the show felt more emblematic of the never-ending cycle of conflict of war between opposing powers.”  

    Lily Tomasic’s set of the room where Creon meets with his advisers and holds the trial of Antigone could be a bomb-damaged room in a Ukrainian city. Zoie Cox’s costumes were contemporary too, with several touches to help us place the characters in their society, joined with Rebecca Mac’s wig and makeup designs. Thomas White used music, but his sound design also struck hard with the sounds of war. Erin Riley’s lighting heightened dramatic moments. Javi Cervantes handled props, and Meg Plunkett was the dramaturg.

    Heaney’s poetry draws on traditional Irish poetic forms. The cast felt comfortable with it, taking advantage of the ways it incorporates both clarity and beauty. With movement and speech, director Ferguson found ways both subtle and effective to ease into the choruses.  Sydney Leiser was a fierce and unyielding Antigone, Ashley Schwach the loving sister Ismene who tries to reason with her and finally joins her. Also fierce and unyielding was Jorge Cordova’s Creon, until broken at the end. Even Colby Willis as his son Haemon, Antigone’s fiance, could not move his father to be merciful. Fabiola Cabrera’s Eurydice, Creon’s wife, appeared only to be crushed by the news brought by Carmen Cecilia Retzer’s messenger. Dominic DeCicco had a rough mystic quality as the seer Tiresias, once again trying to save a ruler of Thebes from the errors of his ways. Jacob Farmer brought welcome comic relief with his characterization of the guard who discovers Antigone trying to bury Polyneices. They all along with Rachel Berry and Ryan Douglass, and without Creon, formed the Chorus. 

    My thanks to director Ferguson and the cast, designers, and crew: this was one of those welcome surprises Capstones can bring us. I hope, and I suspect, that others will want to consider Heaney’s translation of Antigone. 

    Bob Wilcox

    Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography

    From left to right, the performers in the photo are Jacob Farmer, Dominic DeCicco, Jorge Cordova, Colby Willis, Sydney Leiser (sitting), Ryan Douglass, and Carmen Cecilia Retzer.