Grotesquely beautiful and darkly comic tragedy – Alumnae’s Antigone is a work of art

In the semi-darkness, a masked, covered figure lies centre stage, surrounded by three ropes that hang from the ceiling. Sleeping or dead? The house lights go down and there’s movement from the front of house entrance as a procession of masked figures enters, each bearing a death mask mounted on a bamboo pike. Their voices rise in a wordless, melodic, wailing music that evokes the sounds of ancient mourning. A people torn apart by war. Living with unspeakable loss.

And so the stage is set for the Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Antigone (Anouilh), directed by Janet Kish.

Amanda Cordner (Chorus) and the ensemble in Antigone
Amanda Cordner (Chorus) and the ensemble

Enter the Chorus (Amanda Cordner), our narrator and guide to this world. We are in a nowhere land of here, there, then and now – out of time and place, in a parallel universe where ancient Greece meets WWII Paris. And the lighting on the three ropes gives the space a three-ringed gallows appearance – and the Chorus, dressed in tails, is the Ringmaster.

In a country recovering from a civil war between Oedipus’s two sons, who once shared the throne but are now both dead at each other’s hand, Oedipus’s brother Creon (Scott Moore) is now king, a tyrant who has buried one nephew with honours and left the other’s corpse to rot in the sun and be devoured by animals. By royal decree, anyone who attempts to bury the corpse will be put to death. Creon’s niece Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) defies her uncle’s order and buries her brother, leaving Creon with a difficult choice: cover up her actions or put her to death. Antigone will do what’s right no matter what – and will do it over and over again. Creon’s response has devastating ripples – and it was all preventable.

Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) held by Guard (Eric Mrakovcic) as Guards (Renee Awotwi & Patrick Fowler) look on
Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) held by Guard (Eric Mrakovcic) as Guards (Renee Awotwi & Patrick Fowler) look on

Kish has an outstanding cast for this tragic tale of right versus might. Cordner is wryly comical and sharply, at times brutally, observant as the Chorus; Marlene Dietrich meets cabaret emcee in tails, black pants, black bra and a fascinator. A laser-focused and dispassionate host, she bridges our world with that of the play. Bucholc gives a moving and compelling performance as the doomed heroine. Rough and tumble, unapologetically conscientious, brave and defiant; she seeks no permission and asks no forgiveness – but struggles with her protective feelings for her sister Ismene (Carly Telford) and lover Haemon (Christopher Oszwald), in great pain over how the consequences of her actions will hurt them. Moore gives a nicely balanced performance as Creon, Antigone’s conflicted uncle tyrant/protector who leads with a cruel pragmatism and punitive, controlling hand. The debate scene between Antigone and Creon is particularly gripping; and Creon is ultimately stung by Antigone’s assertion that he is a prisoner king – not free by virtue of the choices he refuses to make, all in fear of losing control over his kingdom.

Haemon (Christopher Oszwald) pleads with Creon (Scott Moore)
Haemon (Christopher Oszwald) pleads with Creon (Scott Moore)

Really nice work from Oszwald as the passionate, playful and loyal Haemon; and Telford’s Ismene gives a sweet, wide-eyed quality to the favoured, entitled “good sister.” Martha Breen’s Eurydice, while largely a silent figure, is ever watchful as she knits with her blood red yarn – and her cry at the news of her son’s death would break the stones. Silent too is Christina Leonard’s page, a young boy who serves Creon well, but who registers the anxiety and oppression of a kingdom struggling to rise up from the ashes of war under an iron thumb.

Great comic relief from Sara Stahmer, as Antigone and Ismene’s doting, old-school and gently scolding Nurse. And from the Guards (Eric Mrakovcic, Renee Awotwi and Patrick Fowler), salt of the earth everymen who have no use for politics, and just want to keep their well-paying jobs so they can feed their families. Mrakovcic has a nice moment of empathy with Antigone as he guards her cell; and Awotwi is hilarious as she echoes Mrakovcic’s report of Antigone’s capture and arrest to Creon. Fowler does double duty as the Messenger, dressed as a WWII pilot, who gives a heartbreaking account of Antigone’s and Haemon’s deaths in the tomb meant for Antigone’s punishment and eventual grave.

This production of Antigone features powerful, evocative design, complemented by the play-themed art installation (in the lobby for the duration of the run, by set designer/scenographer Teodoro Dragonieri, assisted by scenic artist Sara Ahmadieh Rad); startling lighting design (Kelsey Laine Jacobson); and costume (Martina Christensen) and makeup (Eleanor MacVeigh) that aptly bring elements of time and place together to create this universe. The movement choreography (Jane Deluzio, in collaboration with the ensemble) and sound design/composition (Jeffrey Jones) are organic and visceral, hearkening back to the ancients while rooted in the present.

A grotesquely beautiful and darkly comic tragedy, Alumnae Theatre’s production of Antigone is a work of art. Get yourselves out there to see this.

Antigone runs on the Alumnae mainstage until Oct 3; click here for details and tickets. Some special performances to note: Social Media Night (Sat, Sept 19) – texting, tweeting and messaging in the last three rows; no flash photography, please. There will be a pre-matinée panel discussion (Sun, Sept 20 – noon to 1 p.m.), Women of Courage, with six “ordinary women who have exhibited extraordinary courage in our current day and age”: Rachel Lauren Clarke, Tasvinder Gill, Tessa Hill, Andrea Patreau, Lia Valente and Meagan Tuck Yaksich.

With production photos by Bruce Peters.

p.s. Almost forgot to mention some minor pre-show drama when the fire alarm went off around 10-15 minutes before show time; likely set off by the fog machine. Thanks to the Alumnae peeps who ushered us outdoors and to the firefighters who arrived to ensure that all was well.

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Powerful, moving & beautifully raw storytelling in I Am Marguerite

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Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald in I Am Marguerite – photo by Bruce Peters

In 1542, banished from a French ship by a heartless, domineering brother, Marguerite de Roberval is set afloat on a skiff towards a remote island off the north coast of Newfoundland. With her are her faithful nurse and her lover Eugene. Left with scant provisions and in fear of never seeing home or loved ones again, they land on the Isle of Demons with the prospect of perishing in the face of cold, harsh winters and predatory wildlife.

This is the story, a little-known piece of Canadian history, brought to life on stage in an hour-long, emotionally and psychologically packed play by Shirley Barrie. This is I Am Marguerite, directed by Molly Thom – and it opened to a packed house at Alumnae Theatre last night.

The storytelling is taut and compelling, shifting in and out of memory and hallucination, and honed over the past decade and after having taken on various forms – from play to opera libretto back to play again – and executed by an excellent cast. As Marguerite, Daniela Pagliarello does a remarkable job of driving the story, not to mention a lovely job of capturing the youthful passion, lust for life, curiosity and rebellious streak of the young French noblewoman. Teetering on the edge of madness, struggling with physical, emotional and mental hardship, she vacillates between a ferocious fight for survival and a desperate surrender to the memories and faces that haunt her in her loneliness. And, like Marguerite, we often find ourselves wondering if the faces are real or imagined ghosts from her past.

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Top: Chris Coculuzzi, Heli Kivilaht & Sara Price. Bottom: Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald – photo by Bruce Peters

Joining Pagliarello is an outstanding supporting cast. As Marguerite’s ambitious, older brother Jean-François, Chris Coculuzzi gives us a strong performance of a man as driven and strong-willed as his younger sister, but with a dark, cruel edge. Proud, controlling and manipulative, he is not above using those closest to him as a means to his own ends. Heli Kivilaht is a delight as Marguerite’s former nurse and present companion Damienne, a loving, nurturing and supportive soul with an irreverent, no-nonsense sensibility. Sara Price brings layers of warmth and genuine goodness to the otherwise imperious and proper Queen of Navarre. As Marguerite’s lover Eugene, Christopher Oszwald gives us a man of quiet strength, a romantic, and a lover of music and beauty who is willing to risk it all for the woman he loves. And the love and loyalty of Eugene and Damienne’s choice to be banished with Marguerite make subsequent events all the more heartbreaking.

With big shouts to a most excellent design team. Marysia Bucholc has created a magnificent, abstract set design – the layers and multi-dimensional, almost sculptural, landscape sharp and rippling outward, with eerie, weeping trees; and props by Razie Brownstone – the rocks, bones and rustic supply trunk – dress an otherwise barren space. The characters are honed and brought to brilliant living colour with stunning period costumes by Peter DeFreitas and Toni Hanson. Angus Barlow’s evocative sound design features haunting atmospheric composition by James Langevin-Frieson (who composed theme music for Marguerite, played at the beginning and the end of the play), as well as period dance and lute music, going from dulcet to frenetic as the music mirrors the fragility of Marguerite’s mind.

I Am Marguerite is a powerful, moving and beautifully raw piece of storytelling.

I Am Marguerite runs on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until April 25, featuring a talkback after the matinée on April 19. Advance tickets available online or at the box office an hour before curtain time (cash only).

Here’s a little teaser by way of the show trailer. Go see this.

Department of Corrections: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention that the original music included in Angus Barlow’s sound design was composed by James Langevin-Frieson. This has since been corrected.