First you see Monica Frawley‘s astonishing set: raw crumbling concrete walls, soaring, high and deep, inset with urn and coffin-holding cubicles, incense smoke rising up. The set is simultaneously ancient and modern, late 21st century catacombs – and very creepy, an effect reinforced by Christopher Akerlind‘s powerful lighting. When the cast processes in, accompanied by J.D. Steele‘s understated and evocative music, you understand that Burial At Thebes (on the Guthrie‘s McQuire Stage, through Nov 6) is a play unlike anything you are ever likely to see again.
The is the Antigone story, simple and well known: Creon, reacting to perceived slights by the recently deceased Polyneices, decrees that his body will remain unburied, sullied by dogs and buzzards. Polyneices’s sister, Antigone, obeying a higher law, buries him anyway. “Am I going to humor you, or honor God?” Creon condemns her to death and thus begins a whirl of Death-horror and even, yes, Death-romance. Everyone is drawn into Antigone’s passion, simultaneously horrified and bedazzled.
The great Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney has adapted this rich material. Heaney’s writing is lean and focused, muscular and tight. He displays a seasoned playwright’s instinct for poetry of the theater (as opposed to poetry – pretty language – in the theater). Indeed, there isn’t a wasted (or dull) moment. Clocking in at ninety intermissionless minutes, Heaney’s Burial grabs you by the throat and never lets go.
Heaney – aided immeasurably by the first rate work of director Marcela Lorca and composer Steele – creates a compelling Chorus of middle aged men (Lee Mark Nelson, Richard Ooms, T. Mychael Rambo, Joe Nathan Thomas and Robert Robinson) who, through heightened language, music and strange yet perfect dance, go seamlessly from pro-Creon sycophancy to pro-Antigone passion. Robinson – the Voice – amazes. If ever a singer could be said to be touched by the Deity, it’s him.
The rest of the cast serves the play brilliantly. Sun Mee Chomet plays Antigone with a fierce, larger-than-life passion. I still get gooseflesh thinking about her passionate I-will-do-this speech, with Robinson’s ethereal singing in the background. Also excellent are Prentiss Standridge as Antigone’s sister Ismene and the always marvelous Greta Oglesby as blind, and angry, Tiresias. “You are deranged!”
And Stephen Yoakum gives a bravura performance as Creon, alternately pathetic, enraging, charming, prowling the stage, refusing to be drawn in by Antigone’s death-passion – until it’s too late. Yoakum animates, and drives Burial. With this play Yoakum goes from solid, dependable actor to bona-fide Minnesota treasure.
In the curtain call of the opening night performance, Seamus Heaney, along with director Lorca and composer Steele, accepted a bouquet and took a bow. What a grand privilege to see him.
So go to this play. Yes, Burial At Thebes is intense, but it’s unique, and well worthwhile.
For more information about John Olive please visit his website.