Something about “Antigone” has kept audiences and writers returning to its troubling story for millennia, but that something has been lost in translation in Keith Reddin and helmer/co-writer Meg Gibson’s version, “Too Much Memory.” Sophocles set the beloved Greek state against the gods in his play — in updating it, Reddin and Gibson have set the oppressive forces of the wicked, Bushy state against vague generalizations about respect and freedom in a cockeyed nod to Jean Anouilh’s Nazi-era version. The result, though beautifully performed by Laura Heisler and Peter Jay Fernadez, loses the story’s crucial ambiguity.
You can’t fault the writers for ambition, at least. Like a Charles Mee play, Reddin and Gibson’s production (which won the New York Intl. Fringe Festival’s overall excellence award over the summer) incorporates an impressively various cornucopia of influences, from plum texts by Pablo Neruda to speeches by rotten apples like Richard Nixon.
The piece starts with the one-man Chorus (Martin Moran) introducing the players and setting the scene, with the actors smiling shyly at him while he mentions their accomplishments and jokes about everyone’s guest appearances on “Law and Order.” Under Gibson’s direction, this is a homey sort of production, with a generally kind tone to the performances and the arguments that goes a long way.
However, it’s worth noting that this Antigone (Heisler) isn’t very nice. She’s strident and a little bratty, and generally seems like she’s not used to taking “no” for an answer, which is why she’s quarrelling with her superiors. To Heisler’s credit, this is enthralling. As Antigone brushes off her prettier, sweeter sister Ismene (Aria Alpert), it becomes apparent she’s the only woman for the job in a Clintonian sort of way. This Antigone is going to bury her brother’s body whether you like it or not.
Fernandez, too, is unexpected. It’s hard to play a coward with any kind of integrity, but this man does it. Watching him, it’s easy to imagine Creon at home, putting on his conservative tie, folding things neatly, eating lunch at exactly the same time every day — and it’s impossible not to feel a wave of pity for him, as his own neatly bounded personality betrays him in a fuzzily bordered world.
But then comes the preaching. Like the Anouilh play, the cornerstone of “Too Much Memory” is a lengthy debate between the two antagonists. Even in occupied France, though, Anouilh found the gray areas — what if there was a possibility it was really Eteocles’ body, not Polynices’? Should Antigone die horribly as a grand gesture?
Those questions have been excised from this version, allowing it to become a kind of liberal persecution fantasia about the evil that Republican men do. Which is a shame, because it’s possible to write a version in which the politics play second fiddle to the tragedy of Creon’s ruined family, and the audience has to think hard about whether or not Antigone did the right thing. Sophocles did it; perhaps someday someone else will, too.