When this latest modern-dress version of Sophocles’ “Antigone” begins with the chorus declaiming “We, the People” and the Oedipus clan decrying “Family is forever,” one braces for another eyeball-rolling interpretation of the Greek legend. But something gradually happens in this jarring but tantalizing production preeming at Providence’s Trinity Rep with the resident company and its a.d., Curt Columbus, collaborating on the contempo ” The Dreams of Antigone”: You begin to see these classical characters as recognizable people, their story as an understandable family drama and the theme of misguided political power as urgently relevant.
Whether it’s the evergreen power of the original narrative, the acting chops of veteran thesps or the sheer nerve of the creative team, by the short play’s surprising (and yet appropriate) end, this “Antigone” connects in unexpected ways.
The gods are absent in this earth-bound adaptation so the tragedy is propelled solely by human failings — with the little people getting a more significant voice beside the royal edicts, flailing and protests.
It may not be everyone’s dream production and purists will wince at regular intervals as Antigone (Rachael Warren) and Ismene (Angela Brazil) squabble like sisters on “Gossip Girls,” brothers Eteocles (Mauro Hartman) and Polyneices (Aaron Rossini) battle like frat brats, and Creon (Fred Sullivan Jr.) laments that he never really wanted to be king anyway.
But once past the shock of the dramaturgical conceit, the play and production, under helmer Brian McEleny’s fluid staging on Tristan Jeffer’s clever de-constructed set, build a case of their own. With the dream motif as its thematic template, the adaptation uses the perennial nature of the work itself and its lessons in political overreach to find its own modern voice.
Not everything goes smoothly, however. Sometimes the connections to present day political woes are too obvious, and the language is often clunky or corny, as if shaped by committee. But, if there’s a loss in the poetry of Greek drama, it’s made up for in the prose of solid performances.
Warren is striking as the single-minded, truth-seeker Antigone who seeks to bury her brother, slain in a civil war battle against her other fallen brothers.
Sullivan creates a great acting arc for Creon, showing a gradual dissolve from political uniter into closed-minded tyranny. Stephen Thorne’s Haemon is heart-breaking as a son seeking mercy from his father, and Phyllis Kay as Creon’s wife Eurydice shows the price one pays as the accommodating political wife.
In a nice bit of Thebian “Upstairs/Downstairs,” Janice Duclos, Barbara Meek and Anne Scurria as royal servants bring heart, dignity and comic relief, respectively.
“We are the story tellers,” say the members of the ensemble at the beginning of the show, a refrain that is repeated and finds stunning power at the play’s end as aud is once again reminded of truths in oft-told tales.