Being the Guthrie Theater can work for you or against you. You have access to incredible talent and resources undreamed of by most other theater companies, but that means that if you produce a show that's only average, it can fall flat in in your posh quarters. But when the stars align, you can produce theater with epic power. That's the case with The Burial at Thebes, the best original Guthrie production I've seen in my four years on the Twin Cities theater beat.
The foundation of this searing production is Seamus Heaney's lucid and probing adaptation of Sophocles's Antigone. No stuffy "thou" and "thine" here: the characters speak plain, direct English that doesn't get flowery about the characters' conflicts and challenges. Several choruses are performed as spine-tingling songs written by J.D. Steele in an idiom that draws on the conventions and power of Gospel and other American (especially African-American) musical traditions without sounding remotely like a pastiche. Though the premise of telling classical drama through gospel music is nothing novel for Minnesota audiences, Thebes feels completely fresh and unique.
The story has newly-crowned king Creon (Stephen Yoakam) vengefully ordering the desecration of the corpse of his nephew Polyneices, who has betrayed the kingdom in battle. When Polyneices's sister Antigone (Sun Mee Chomet) defies her uncle's order and honors her brother's corpse, Creon is not inclined to be forgiving—despite the fact that Antigone is engaged to marry his son Haemon (Ernest Bentley).
The resonance with recent political events is clear, and Heaney acknowledges as much in a Guardian piece republished in the Guthrie program. "Early in 2003 we were watching a leader, a Creon figure if there ever was one: a law and order bossman trying to boss the nations of the world into uncritical agreement with his edicts in much the same way as Creon tries to boss the Chorus of compliant Thebans into conformity with his."
Heaney goes on to note, though, that he didn't want his adaptation to become "just another opportuistic commentary on the Iraq adventure"—and it's not. In this production, Creon emerges as a complex and sympathetic character, torn between the values of law and loyalty he's spent his life defending and the uncomfortable fact that "the reality-based community" doesn't always follow the rules you expect it to.
Yoakam has been very good in many shows for a long time, and here he gets the role of a career and nails it with such force that I'm getting goosebumps just remembering his climactic scene. Put your money down now on Ivey recognition for Yoakam come next fall. He's surrounded by peers, notably the fierce Chomet and Greta Oglesby, who channels a mighty, chilling power as the seer Tiresias. (Between this show and A Winter's Tale, it's been a banner year for badass seers at the Guthrie.)
From the first moment to the last, director Marcela Lorca keeps Burial at Thebes taut and compelling. Everyone involved is at the top of their games, including set designer Monica Frawley, whose mammoth catacomb may cause you to gasp before the show even starts. Much of the show rests on the shoulders of the five-man chorus, who carry it well; among the men are the venerable Richard Ooms, the commanding T. Mychael Rambo, and Robert Robinson, a local Gospel legend whose great physical bulk and angelic voice lend gravity to every moment he's onstage—which, fortunately, is almost all of the play.
This is a production that gets everything right; it would merit repeated viewings to appreciate the nuances of characterization, the ethereal music, and the sheer force of a story well-told. My favorite shows of each of the past three years—Jon Ferguson's You're My Favorite Kind of Pretty in 2008, Bedlam Theatre's Dalí-DADA in 2009, The Thing by Samantha Johns and George McConnell in 2010—have been relatively tiny productions by independent playmakers who took risks, put their hearts into their work, and created distinctive worlds onstage. The Burial at Thebes shows that the big companies can take those risks too, and reap the rewards.
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