Monday, January 4, 2016

She walks her dark road: "Antigona"

Acclaimed flamenco artist Soledad Barrio
with members of Noche Flamenca in Antigona
(photo: Zarmik Moqtaderi)

Nothing prepares you for Antigona, classical Greek tragedy viewed and renewed through the Spanish art of flamenco.

Perhaps you've read the primary source (Sophocles) or a recent review of Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca's production, now in its second New York run (West Park Presbyterian Church). Perhaps you've long followed the careers of Barrio and her husband Martín Santangelo, Noche Flamenca's artistic director. In the end, none of that matters. This Antigona, this phenomenon, will make your eyes fly open in surprise.

Ninety-minutes in length, with no intermission, it is dense but swift-moving, integrative theater by artists originally noted for the intimate simplicity and transparency of their approach to flamenco. Although Noche Flamenca has previously experimented with characters and storytelling, the company has never risked as much nor won as much as it has with Antigona. And no one can say "At least, see this show for Barrio's dancing," since every aspect of the production is carefully, generously wrought and woven into the whole, each working towards overall excellence.

Like the Sophocles play, Antigona is a highly moral and political work of theater, dramatizing the conflict between conventional law and a private sense of family honor and justice. In short, Antigone/a--daughter of Oedipus, former King of Thebes--loves her rebel brother Polynieces as much as the brother, Eteocles, who remained loyal to the state. Both are now dead by each other's hand, and the new king, their uncle Creonte, orders a fine burial for Eteocles while denying burial to Polynieces. This is anathema to the gods, and Antigona's anguished intervention draws her and those around her towards a dark fate.

The static church setting at West Park presents visual limitations--including, for the audience, level rows of pew seating--but dynamic stagecraft and variable temperatures of light stir the drama to life. Even without the warrior brothers' pivotal, badass dance battle, accompanied by rocking percussion and electric guitar, that pits the flamencero Polyneices (Carlos Menchaca) against the hip hop of Eteocles (Robert Wilson), this production would work for the typical attention spans of today. Fifteen scenes quickly tumble after and into one another. Instrumental and vocal music ring out strong. Dashes of lyric poetry, enough to give the gist of a singer's lengthier expression, are projected above the action. And the placement and movement of players continuously mutate, neatly exploiting every level, angle and corner of the stage. All of it comes at you without cease and with equal respect and weight afforded each discipline--dance, music, singing, acting, visual design.

Barrio dances at the corpse of Polyneices in Antigona.
(photo: Zarmik Moqtaderi)

Just turning focus to dance alone, you have Barrio sweeping through like a storm cloud. Never before has she danced better, attacking with the directive force and fullness of mature authority and, late in the play, with searing abandon. You're convinced the great performer has taken up sorcery with no qualms about slipping between the here-and-now and the world of the dead. But Barrio, lioness though she is, must share essential duties with Menchaca, Wilson, frequent partner Juan Ogalla (as Haemon, Antigone's bethrothed) who dances up an earthquake, and all of the tightly-orchestrated cast.

Juan Ogalla (Haemon) with Barrio
(photo: Zarmik Moqtaderi)

Singer Emilio Florido also stands out as an adroit, sassy Master of Ceremonies, and Marina Elana displays concentration and finesse in her dancing as well as unexpected comedy in her role as Ismene, a chatty Valley Girl narrator blithely filing her nails as her sister Antigona leads blinded Oedipus across the stage. In another wry scene, Creonte (the wonderful singer Manuel Gago) gets crowned with a matador's montera hat and drives hot pink bandilleras towards Ismene as she charges him, bar stool flipped up to her head like threatening horns.

Yes, comedy in the midst of tragedy. Antigona frequently toys with irreverent humor and does so in successful balance with other modes and moods. The power of political satire is key to understanding why Santangelo and Barrio felt moved to revive this ancient story: Antigone/a can illuminate any moment of social repression. Their publicity has referenced, among other things, its relevance to the Victorian era, South African apartheid and Franco's Spain.

Antigone, then, continues to walk her dismal road in all places and throughout eternity. And here's a thought to make you shudder: If inclined, one could also draw a parallel between this heroine's resistance--her adherence to personal belief against the rule of law--and the stance of, say, county clerk Kim Davis or some Oregon militia seizing a wildlife refuge.

Antigona continues through January 23. Click here for schedule information and tickets.

West Park Presbyterian Church
165 West 86th Street (between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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