The UNCW theatre department presents “The Burial at Thebes” this Thursday on the main stage at UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building. A translation of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” “The Burial at Thebes”—written by by Seamus Heaney, the Irish Noble Laureate—keeps to the roots of the time period, but makes it accessible to those who may be intimidated by period pieces and the language.
The play will be directed by Paul Castagno, professor and founding member of the department. Castagno didn’t want to use puffy, stiff dialogue—the stilted style of language done in Sophocles’ version. Castagno went with something accessible to students because university theater is all about teaching students while being inclusive to the community at large. “The Burial at Thebes” is just that.
The characters make it most accessible. Their ideas are not black and white, much like all of humanity. Rather than being a play focused on good versus evil, Castagno calls it more of a political debate—two opposing ideas from the two main characters, Antigone and Creon.
“It’s a clash of wills,” he says. “Antigone is self-serving and uncompromising, and Creon [the king] is the same way. [Antigone’s] critical of her sister, [Ismene,] and it’s a story about headstrong people and what happens because of that.”
Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, finds out about the deaths of two of her brothers, each of whom fought on opposing sides of the war. The war consisted of seven assailants against the King of Thebes, Creon. Creon buried Antigone’s brother who fought on the king’s side, but left the other brother out to rot. “The idea is family versus state,” Dr. Castagno says. Ritual burial rights of the time were important; it was considered sacrilegious to the gods to not bestow proper burials because it meant the dead would suffer an awful afterlife. But if the state refused burial because of treason, families often were left to choose their loyalties. This was catalyst that led to suicidal tragedy for both Creon’s and Antigone’s family.
Juniors Danielle Houston, Julia Ormond, and Robert Smith are the leading roles; Houston will take on Antigone, while Ormond will play Ismene. They represent immediate opposing forces: Antigone is brash and goes against societal norms, while Ismene would rather follow conservative traditions.
“There’s a lot of emotional turmoil with each character throughout the show, and watching their lives fall and crumble to pieces in a way that none of us would ever truly experience, having to get in touch with that kind of turmoil has been a real challenge,” Ormond says. “[It] takes a lot of self-reflection.”
“Danielle and Julia have a great dynamic as sisters in the first long scene, and are strong actors,” Castagno adds. “Struggles between characters [Ismene versus Antigone, Antigone versus Creon, Creon versus the two sisters] are scenes with a lot of tension.”
A psychological battle presents itself, allowing the audience to decipher who’s right and wrong onstage. In 441 B.C. (the year historians estimate the play was written), loyalty was extremely important—to state, country, household, laws, and religion. “Loyalty could break a family apart,” Dr. Castagno says. Loyalty was tested at times, and maintaining faith through these tests was a sign of dedication. It offered a way to judge a good citizen. The play centers on these ideas and who remains faithful and who doesn’t.
Though Dr. Castagno wanted to stay true to characters and dialogue, he wanted to bring in aspects of Greek theatre, too. He will be using a chorus and a viola to add historical context through music. “You don’t see plays with choruses like this anymore,” he says. The actors will dance, sing, do rituals, and rites in a free-spirited Dionysian style. More serious Apollonian music will be heard, too, to provide balance.
Creon, played by Smith, will best represent this Apollonian style. He studied Etruscan films, like “Troy,” to get an understanding of how royals carried themselves. Smith honed in on their postures and standing positions. “[Creon] has to walk into a room and fill up the space,” Smith says, “and that’s something old school. I’ve had to learn so much because of that.”
Dr. Castagno added a satyr, played by Nikki Taylor, who will take part in the musical moments. Taylor will be using a mask and has been practicing with it for three to six months of rehearsal. The mask is considered an iconic convention of classical Greek theatre. As a way to create different atmospheres, it enables an actor to appear several times in different roles. Masks were a way to worship Dionysus.
The chorus will congregate at the Greek theatre’s entrance, known as “parodos,” which has been constructed by set designer Randall Enlow. Enlow created a palace, throne area, burial vault, and cave. Dr. Castagno will utilize its multiple areas, layers and depth to help create movement within “The Burial at Thebes.” “It’s realistic,” he praises, “trying to capture a world without being that world, and it breaks from tradition.”
Dr. Castagno was struck by the Etruscan culture, 471 B.C. as women had more rights than within Greek or Roman civilizations. With Antigone being a strong female character, Dr. Castagno decided to touch on the Etruscan aesthetic—more colorful than Roman or Greek times as well—which includes a lot of ornamentation.
“It’s a classical play, but it’s not going to be dry,” he says.