The themes in Antigone are revisited in this modern adaptation 

Timeless Talk

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Ruta Smith

There are certain things that last in this world, like Honda Accords or a good pair of running shoes or awkward silences. Antigone, the ancient Greek tragedy written by Sophocles in or before 441 BC, is one of those long-lasting, iconic works that never seems to go out of style.

On the surface, the plot revolves around the ideas that seem most common in Greek tragedies: War, family, betrayal, and tradition. But the real meat of the story is the struggle between Antigone and Creon.

In the aftermath of a fierce battle, two men who were vying to rule Thebes, Eteocles, and Polyneices, have both died. Their successor, Creon, decides that Polyneices, because he was leading a foreign army, will be left unburied on the field of battle. Antigone, Polyneices' sister, disobeys Creon and buries her brother anyway, pitting civil disobedience against tradition and moral inflexibility.

In other words, this 2,500-year-old play deals with versions of the same things the countries of the world have been struggling with for centuries. That's probably why the tragedy has endured, and why new adaptations keep popping up. One updated version of Antigone by French playwright Jean Anouilh in the 1940s used it as a metaphor for the battle between the Nazi occupation and the French Resistance.

Another version from 2008, called Too Much Memory and adapted by Meg Gibson and Keith Reddin is meant to take on the George W. Bush administration. That's a remarkably flexible work of historical fiction.

It's also a play that has long interested David Moon, the co-artistic director of Charleston's 5th Wall Productions who is co-directing Too Much Memory as part of Piccolo Spoleto.

"It's one of the great Greek tragedies," Moon says. "I first encountered it in my teens, and it's stayed with me ever since. So when we were looking for plays to do that fit this season's theme of 'Question Everything,' I came across this particular adaptation of it and it really spoke to me because it's a modern retelling of the story that sticks to the basic storyline."

Moon says that Antigone's civil disobedience, which causes Creon to sentence her to death, is a theme that is sadly relevant in our current political climate, but also points out that it's always been relevant.

"I think that's why the source material and the adaptations have continued to have an impact and continued to be produced," he says. "I mean, it's been nearly 2,500 years since Sophocles wrote it, but these struggles and conflicts have been going on for thousands of years, so it still has an impact today."

In Moon's view though, Too Much Memory is just as much about characters as it is about larger ideas, and praises the play's even-handedness and lack of judgement for either Antigone or Creon.

"The central storyline and the reason for the conflict between Creon and Antigone is a specific event," he says. "But it doesn't come down on one side or the other, which is another fascinating thing about it. I think that's true of the original and the adaptations. You don't get the sense that Antigone is in the right and Creon is in the wrong. It raises questions about personal conscience, choosing to do what you think is right regardless of what the law says, and weighing that against whether the law is necessary in order to keep society from degenerating into anarchy and chaos. It doesn't really draw any conclusions or come down on either side one way or the other."

The Antigone role is one that required an actress who could play both strength and vulnerability, and Moon says he found the perfect person in Elaine Chilcoat.

"She's fairly new to the Charleston area, but Elaine has worked in theater in California and New York," he says. "She brought a philosophy to the audition that I was looking for. She has to convey a sense of strength, purpose and determination, and she also has to have a vulnerability, as in the scenes when she's interacting with her sister or her fiancé. She's got a great range for the role."

In fact, her range was so great that Moon took an unexpected step after she auditioned; he decided to play Creon himself.

"It was because I wanted the opportunity to act opposite her," he says of Chilcoat. "She'd given such a strong audition I wanted the chance to work with her so I thought, 'I'm going to take the plunge, but first I'll see if I can find someone to co-direct with me.' Because otherwise I'd be completely on my own, directing myself in a major role."

Enter Destini Fleming, who's co-directing Too Much Memory and giving Moon some much-needed help.

"I needed another pair of eyes on me to make sure I'm going in the right direction," he says.

And despite the political implications of the modern adaptation, Moon says at the end of the day, it's about the people in the story, no matter what the setting is.

"We haven't really turned any rehearsals into a discussion of the characters' political viewpoints or the way they oppose each other," he says. "It's been about these specific individuals who have these specific conflicts that are personal. It's about those specific people and what they do to each other, not the bigger ideas."

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