Reviewed by George Basler
Down through the ages, folly, pride and arrogance have led to disaster for a long parade of leaders.
The Greeks knew all about this in the fifth century BC when Sophocles wrote his great tragedy Antigone. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that people never seem to learn.
This sad fact gives The Burial at Thebes, now being given a solid production at Binghamton University, its continuing relevance and emotional resonance. The play opened this past weekend(April 26-28) and will continue this weekend in the Watters Theater.
The Burial at Thebes is an adaptation of Antigone by Nobel Prize-winning playwright and poet Seamus Heaney. When he wrote the play, the United States’ invasion of Iraq, under the presidency of George W. Bush, was fresh in the news.
Heaney, a critic of the invasion, readily acknowledged its influence on his work. The theme of how the arrogance of power can lead to disaster is certainly apparent in the Binghamton University production.
At the same time, the play — at least from my perspective — is a warning about the danger of becoming so locked into rigid ideological positions that it precludes compromise or seeing any merit in the other side. In today’s polarized political atmosphere (think Red States versus Blue States), that hits home in a recognizable way.
The BU production’s strengths include a vigorous and fluid direction by Elizabeth Mozer, an associate professor of theater. The 14 members of the student cast all give capable performances, but, while it’s a creditable effort, the production falls short of reaching the emotional catharsis envisioned by the Greeks.
The play’s action is straightforward. After a civil war, Creon, the new king of Thebes, issues an order denying burial to his nephew, Polyneices, who fought on the wrong side. Instead, the body is left outside the city’s gates to rot.
Antigone, Polyneices’ sister, is shocked by this violation of religious tradition and defies the order. This sets up a confrontation between Creon, who refuses to budge despite entreaties to do so, and Antigone who is locked in her moral certitude. The result is tragedy on all sides.
As Creon, Connor Brannigan does a first-rate job portraying the character’s imperiousness and reckless inability to see the consequences of his action. He dominates the stage when he’s on it, and his vocal command of the part is impressive.
Still, the performance could use some more emotional shading. Creon, while wrongheaded, should arouse some sympathy. After all, he believes his action is justified to maintain civil order. In this production, though, he comes across as merely vengeful. This reduces the power of the play’s ending when Creon, finally regretting his decision, is left an isolated and broken man.
Kyanna Lebron, gives a richly detailed performance as Antigone. She shows the character’s resolute strength while also revealing her unappealing self-righteousness. In the end, Antigone is just as rigid as Creon. Lebron is not afraid to make the character someone you admire, but don’t especially like.
The rest of the cast give accomplished performances as well. Two stand out. James Musngi is strikingly eerie as the blind prophet Tiresias who finally convinces Creon of the tragic consequences of his action.
On the other end of the emotional scale, Greg DeCola does a fine comic turn as a guard who has the unenviable job of telling Creon that someone has been trying to bury Polyneices in defiance of his order. The performance is broadly humorous and provides some welcome relief to the grim proceedings.
Music provided by percussionists Julian Cubeiro and Bryan Junod strike a suitably ominous tone. The set by Holden Gunster is both stark and commanding. It seems to overwhelm the actors which is altogether fitting for characters who are overwhelmed by outside forces, be it revenge of the gods, or human frailty.
IF YOU GO: The Binghamton University Theatre Department will present The Burial at Thebes at 8 p.m. Friday, May 3, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 5, in the Watters Theater of the Fine Arts Building. Tickets at $18 ($16 for alumni, faculty, staff and seniors; $10 for students) can be purchased at the Anderson Center box office, online anytime or at 777-ARTS.