Micari (Antigone) in ‘Antigone’ directed by Satoshi Miyagi at Park Avenue Armory.
(Photo: Stephanie Berger)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Satoshi Miyagi belongs to a small cohort of internationally acclaimed Japanese stage directors that includes Tadashi Suzuki and the late Yukio Ninagawa. These artists are known, in part, for their exhilaratingly imaginative productions of classical dramas. A good example is Miyagi’s stunning, Japanese-language (with surtitles) version of Sophocles’ Antigone, at the Park Avenue Armory, which allows the 2,500-year-old tragedy to take advantage of the cavernous space in an expansive production employing a large, perfectly-drilled company of 29 from the Shizuoka Arts Center, where Miyagi is artistic director. It’s his second version, the first done in 2004, the present one shown in 2014 at Avignon, France.
Sophocles’ Antigone, of course, is named for the pious young woman who, when her warring brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, kill each other, defies the order of the new king, Creon, not to bury Polyneices. This leads to her death and that of Creon’s son, Antigone’s betrothed. In this adaptation, even Creon dies, although Sophocles lets him live so he can suffer the consequences of his actions.
Despite Antigone’s eternally relevant political theme—the state’s demands vs. the individual’s morality, which can be interpreted in many ways—Miyagi, in the program, points to a different message. This is that, when looked at by the dead, our world of “prosperity and riches” is “utterly meaningless.” I admit it’s not something I would otherwise have noted.
This is even truer because of how difficult it is not to hear the play quietly echoing the news about an anonymous whistleblower risking his safety by reporting on the alleged misdeeds of President Trump, who retaliated by suggesting the agent is a spy deserving of execution. Antigone’s duty to religious dictates is not unlike the whistleblower’s to Constitutional values. Many of the drama’s lines thus have the ring of irony. Give it some thought and you’ll conjure up a scenario featuring the current constellation of White House figures.
Regardless of Antigone’s political prescience, Armory audiences will be most impressed by the gigantic stage area (designed by Junpei Kiz, with superb lighting by Koji Osako) flooded with 18,000 gallons of water, creating a pool several inches deep. In it, the company, dressed in white, many in loose, long-sleeved, kimono-like robes (designed by Kayo Takahashi), sit stone-still or move about languidly among several artfully arranged rock formations, almost as if walking on water.
The water represents the Buddhistic fluidity of the liminal world between the living and the dead. There’s even a priest on a raft, who, ultimately, floats paper lanterns, representing souls, on the water. Finally, everyone having become Buddhas, they circle the pool like ghostly participants in a gently rhythmic, dreamlike, bon dance.
At the start, actors appear along a narrow platform fronting the pool to recite, in English, a plot summary, accompanied by pantomime. It’s done in such a friendly manner (my companion thought it “too cutesy”) that it’s necessary, when over, for several long moments to pass before the mood turns somber enough for the play proper to begin.
The six main roles are performed by two actors each, one doing the highly stylized movement, the other, seated Japanese-style in the water, speaking the words in a formalized manner. This is inspired by the bunraku puppet theatre, where visible narrators speak the puppets’ words, although usually, only one speaks for all of them. Thus, using S for Speaker and M for Mover, the program lists Antigone being played by Maki Honda (S) and Micari (M); Creon by Kazunori (S) and Kouichi Ohtaka (M); Ismene by Yuumi Sakakibara (S) and Asuka Fuse (M), and so on for Tiresias, Haemon, and the Guard.
Miyagi’s ideas—including shadow play on the soaring rear wall—are eye- and ear-catching. An ensemble of excellent percussionists lines the upstage wall, providing a near-constant musical accompaniment (composed by Hiroko Tanakawa), sometimes subtle, sometimes overwhelmingly dramatic, to the hour and 45-minute presentation. Miyagi also is influenced by noh, mainly in the ritualistic pacing and atmospheric solemnity rather than in anything directly “borrowed.”
Powerful as the effects are, Miyagi’s focus on aesthetics suppresses the emotional impact. It’s hard to feel much compassion for characters in such a hieratic world. Antigone is a beautiful event, worth every theatergoer’s time. And, while it may stir your political angst, it’s unlikely to achieve catharsis.
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue, NYC
Through October 6
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited nearly 30 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. His reviews for 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 are available in the Theatre’s Leiter Side series on Amazon.com. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.