At their best, works of translation are about not just adaptation but rather possession. The content, untethered from its original form or structure or language, becomes transformed into something wholly new. In an interview in the show’s program book, Satoshi Miyagi, the director of the Park Avenue Armory’s North American premiere of Antigone, said, “I don’t think of this as an adaptation at all. Rather I began by thinking about how I could get closer to the original text than other productions.” In this production, Miyagi has succeeded in closing that gap in translation, giving the text a cozy home in a cultural tradition far from its own.
A classic tragedy of ancient Greek theater, Antigone, by Sophocles, is the tale of a princess (one of the daughters of Oedipus, notorious he of the motherly love) who, after her brothers kill each other in combat, defies the ruling of her uncle, King Creon, that one brother, Polyneices, be left unburied for his acts against the state. Antigone, deeming the rules of the gods to be more important than those of men, buries Polyneices anyway and is punished by Creon as a result. Warned by the prophet Tiresias that he must let Antigone be, Creon discovers that he’s already too late: Antigone is dead, as is her fiance, Creon’s son Haemon.
Performed in Japanese by Miyagi’s Japan-based company, the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center, this Antigone incorporates Noh theater and shadow play into its interpretation. The space design, by Junpei Kiz, is immediately striking: the Armory’s Drill Hall is low-lit, filled with an 18,000-gallon pond out of which poke a few boulders. Various members of the company, in white gauzy robes covering white bodysuits (Kayo Takahashi’s costume design is simultaneously spectral, skeletal, matrimonial, and priestly—all fitting for the occasion), wade slowly through the water, carrying small candles. The atmosphere feels meditative and respectfully somber, evoking a funeral procession, and Miyagi does a great job of maintaining that as a tone and motif.
After a sextet of performers file out, thumping and dinging on various percussion instruments, and act out a cute, comical Sparknotes-style summary of the play in English, a man on a ferry—a kind of Charon, ferryman to the land of the dead—appears. He grants white wigs to a few performers, called the movers, who silently act out the characters’ movements while other performers, called the speakers, kneel nearby and recite the dialogue. Though there are no masks, this setup still recalls Noh. The movers aren’t meant to provide exact representations of what their characters are saying at any given moment—their movements are slow and stylized, with conscientious gestures so that no motion is wasted. The synchronicity and control of the choreography is just one contributing factor that makes the production stunning to behold. The movers at times when they break out of their slow pantomime into more athletic motions that signal more elevated moments of feeling. Yoneji Ouchi, as Haemon, agilely leaps across boulders and skips across the stage with seemingly impossible grace; Takahiko Watanabe, as Tiresias, stoops and crouches and wildly gesticulates as he delivers his prophecy to Creon; and Keita Mishima and Morimasa Takeishi, as the doomed brothers Polyneices and Eteocles, each briefly brandish a staff in battle. And the battle, too, looks like dance, as Mishima and Takeishi kick up twin crests of water as they run into combat.
But even when the movers aren’t battling or leaping through the air, they build their characters from stillness and posture. Spotlights project their shadows onto the colossal back wall of the Drill Hall, emphasizing the mythic quality of the figures, as they loom above the heads of the audience. But not even the silhouettes are static; they grow and shrink in tandem with the dialogue. Haemon’s shadow shrinks when he speaks with reverence to his father, but grows when he attempts to assert himself. Creon’s shadow, meanwhile, stands the largest throughout the show, representing the king’s seemingly unimpeachable authority, as inflexible as Kouichi Ohtaka’s straight-backed figure, exuding royal pride and power.
But it’s the pair of actors together—Ohtaka as the body and Kazunori Abe as the booming voice, which moves from outrage to tearful lamentation—that creates this monarch. The same goes for the others, like Antigone’s sister Ismene, whose physicality (Asuka Fuse) and hysterical vocal performance (Yuumi Sakakibara) seem to create her as a certain stereotype of young womanhood in a restrictive society, and Antigone, who is brought to life with an equal sense of strength and resilience in body (Micari) and voice (Maki Honda).
Though the usual themes of Antigone are still present—honor, ego, power, etc.—this production most emphasizes the line between life and death, allowing for a fresh spin on the old text. And Miyagi also transforms the role of the chorus: there are choruses of four women, echoing Ismene’s distress, or five men, reinforcing Creon’s dicta, or a mixed group of men and women whose movements mirror Antigone’s. They speak in chants and harmonies, creating kinds of songs from the multiplicity of resounding voices—but there are literal songs too. In between some of the scenes are musical numbers during which the performers get into formation as the lighting shifts and the music builds. The music, composed by Hiroko Tanakawa, is performed live by company members, and it’s percussion-heavy, mimicking a stern, measured military march or creating a foreboding build toward tragedy with the sound of rolling thunder. It’s fitting—except for the times when it’s too much, when the music butts too fiercely against the spoken dialogue, nearly drowning it out.
Generally, it can be difficult to track all of the elements of the production. Everything is eye-catching—and ear-catching—which can create a conflict of attention for the audience. Trying to watch the movers act out a scene, while paying attention to the sounds of the language as delivered by the speakers kneeling nearby, while reading the English subtitles on the screen above, while also keeping an eye on the shadows cast on the wall—it’s enough to make you dizzy. Miyagi’s direction could have accommodated for this a bit more by focusing its attention and being a bit more selective in which of the many elements of the production show up when.
But what lingers after Antigone ends is a production with a cinematic beauty, even as it indulges in visions of death and dying. Whereas such a focus might create a depressing play about fear and loss and sudden endings, here, when the lights change to a rich purple and the cast sings about death—and when a final silent march ends in the return of the ferryman, who dutifully sets floating lanterns on the water as the lights dim to black—the delicacy and elegance with which every aspect of the play is performed recasts those themes. This Antigone begins and ends with visions of death, and delivers so many of its characters to their death, just like in the original, but also resolves itself to that fact. Ultimately, we know, all march off like the company onstage. All see the ferryman. All dip their feet into the water. But there’s beauty in that, and simplicity—in the water, the march, and the final dimming of the lights.