Take a wild guess which world leader this line describes: “His brilliant emptiness shines throughout the land.” Well, alright, it could be a great number of them, but New Moon Rep and Roust Theatre Company’s I Kreon leaves no room for doubt which W we’re talking about. The play focuses on one of the most important questions that the War on Terror has brought to the forefront – how must we treat our enemies? Between Guantanamo and Saddam Hussein’s ugly end, most Americans have this question floating around the landscape of their political consciousness, and adapter-director Aole T. Miller does well to bring his feelings on the topic into the shared space of the theater. However, this adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, one of our most basic reference points in creating political theater, ultimately chooses a tactic of mocking over serious debate. By the time Kreon, the thinly veiled equivalent to our own authoritarian leader, comes around to realize the error of his dogmatic ways, it is too late for him to rectify his actions. At that same point in I Kreon it is already too late for the talented company to produce a lasting impression on its audience.
As the title suggests, the production focuses not on Antigone (Claire Siebers), but on her uncle, king Kreon (played with an intelligent flare by James Luse). To a modern audience Kreon’s actions seem debatable at best. He refuses burial rights to his own son because he feels that he betrayed the homeland, in this adaptation by attacking and destroying two Theban towers. Kreon would rather leave Polynices’ body to the dogs. In one of the many strong lines spoken by the masked Chorus, Miller hints at the comparison he is drawing between the death of Polynices and that of Saddam Hussein: “What honor is there in killing a man after death?” the Chorus asks the obstinate king.
The Chorus, with their touching repetition of poetry, accompanied by the haunting recorded soundscape of the piece, do manage to provide some emotional depth to the production. Their fine Balinese masks and fluid movement conjure some of the Greek spirit of the play. But the adaptation’s “Greekness” - and while aiming to please a twenty first century audience, I Kreon definitely attempts to find a fifth century BC Athenian vibe - falls short with its main exploration, that of the character of Kreon. Where Sophocles gave the hard lined king un-ignorable strength of argument, Miller gives him laugh lines taken from various twentieth century villains. It is undeniably funny to watch James Luse's odd triple amalgamation of King Kreon, Dr. Evil and George W. spew lines such as "There is no compromise between the rights of slaves and those who rule the modern world." However, Antigone survived this long, and indeed is one of the classics that most interests modern audiences (this is at least the third production of the play this year in New York alone) because of the dual nature of the play. It is both subversive and traditional. It presents the establishment’s point of view while questioning it in the deepest possible way. It thrives on the tension between right and wrong, and on the complexity of every political act. This production’s great need to take a stand chokes the complexity out of the classic, and presents Kreon alone with the mess he created and deserves. It is for this reason that the emotions never quite grip, even when he finally does see that he brought disaster on himself, his family and his country.
The attempt to use a classic in order to let out a loud cry in opposition to our present political situation is to be applauded, as is the playful theatricality, the tasteful design (set and costumes by Shana Mckay Burns, lighting by Andrew D. Smith) and the well-rounded ensemble. But when your villain does not seduce you with his arguments, watching his downfall will not be the tragic experience Antigone was written to be.