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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: UW-Oshkosh explores wonders of pithy ‘Antigone’

It’s a rare chance to see the classical Greek style.

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – Sophocles had errant power nailed 2,500 years ago. That’s one thought among many sparked by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre Department’s production of “Antigone,” in performance through Saturday, April 27, in Fredric March Theatre on campus. Info: www.uwosh.edu/theatre.

The production is overall excellent (4½ stars out of 5), with a major point of fascination being its presentation: Performers wear stylized masks that say something of their character. They wear flowing robes that speak of their station and status. The setting is at a Grecian temple (columns and all), surrounded by huge stones. A chorus of nobles often speaks in unison, or in groups – observing and commenting on what is taking place. The language used in a translation is clear and of today, basically; it’s easy to understand where Sophocles is going, even over the reach of millennia. The culture in which “Antigone” transpires is long gone, but we seem to be stuck forever with the human behaviors in it. The play gives a strong impression that there, indeed, is nothing new under the sun.

***

Creative: Playwright – Sophocles, with modern assists with language; director – Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft; costume design – Kathleen Donnelly; set design – Roy Hoglund; lighting design – Mick Alderson; music composers – Daniel Grayvold and Jonah Mueller; composition supervisor – Christopher Plummer.

Cast: Antigone – Sarah Gorski; Ismene – Chee Xiong; Kreon – Matthew Nielsen; Chorus of Elderly Theban Nobles – Amy Baumgardner, Andrea Ewald, Cameron Hitchcock, Joseph King, David Kurtz, Mallory Radney and Kellie Wambold; Koryphaios – Michael Stimac; Haimon – Benjamin Mackey; Terisias – Jacob Schaubs; Eurydice – Nayla Ferreira; Sentry – Jared Schultz; Messenger – Bradley Skonecki; Kreon’s Attendant – Brian Kachelmeyer. 

***

This is what happens in “Antigone”: There’s been a war. Two brothers, fighting on opposite sides, have killed each other in battle. The ruler of the victorious side and uncle of the brothers, Kreon, has ordered that the body of the brother who attacked be left unburied for dogs and vultures to dispose of. Antigone defies Kreon’s order, in the name of respect for the dead, any dead. The almighty, never-wrong Kreon orders the death not only of Antigone but her sister, Ismene, who had nothing to do Antigone’s actions. The citizens go along with Kreon out of fear. Kreon’s son, Haimon, tries to reason with Kreon, tries to get Kreon to step outside of himself and see his error. Even the words of the sage Teiresias fall on deaf ears. The play ends in tragedy all around.

It’s too late to argue with Sophocles, but the play may well have been called “Kreon.” Kreon is the person to learn from; time and again, characters show him the way, yet he is essentially blinded and deafened by his rigid belief that his decisions are correct in a kind of might makes right. Antigone got Sophocles’ vote for the title because she is heroic, the whistleblower who musters the courage to speak out despite consequences. Antigone is a representation of a long list of defiant ones through history.

The acting in the production is primarily stylized, at times straightforward statement. For Sarah Gorski, Antigone is a character who states her situation, and then lays out her plan of action. What she says and does sets off Kreon, with Matthew Nielsen getting to explode and growl and howl and holler and harrumph all over the place. Haimon (Benjamin Mackey) generates passion, and Teiresias (Jacob Schaubs) stirs ominous told-you-sos. In “Antigone,” there even is some comedy, albeit wry, as the Sentry (Jared Schultz) states his realization that his neck is on the line for being the bearer of bad news for Kreon, that someone has buried the body of Kreon’s renegade nephew.

The Chorus is well-drilled. One of its effects, the thumping of staffs/walking sticks is doubly potent. The THUMP sound of the sticks being struck on the stage is heightened by the hollowness beneath the stage. The resonance is like thunder.

The production has a collaborative aura, with all the many pieces carefully considered and put together. The one hour and 15 minute performance is packed with stuff, from original music to the careful mask work to actors delving into characters from way, way back in time who still are represented on Earth today.

THE VENUE: The 498-seat Fredric March Theatre includes a tradition proscenium (flat front stage) that’s 40 feet wide by 16 feet high. Built in 1971, the theater is located in the heart of the UW-Oshkosh campus. The exterior features a 1970s era UW campus architectural style that embraces cement, in this case the cement reminiscent of geometric trees supporting a flat roof on the glass-enclosed entry and lobby. The interior features honeycombed red-brick walls and a slightly arcing seating area with no center aisle, with a general impression of closeness to the stage. Sound carries well in the theater, with voices in “Antigone” especially cleanly and clearly heard from the front third of the stage.

THE PERSON: Fredric March was a famous actor who was born in 1897 in Racine. March had no direct connection with UW-Oshkosh prior to the naming of the theater. He earned the honor due to the respect for his level of performance on Broadway and film – and being from Wisconsin. March and his wife attended the grand opening. March earned best actor Oscars for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He earned three Oscar nominations.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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