Theater Review: “AntigonX” — Sophocles Newly Envisioned, Splendidly

By David Greenham

AntigonX shows how a theater company’s admirable dedication to innovation lifts new voices and ideas.

AntigonX, a queer, Latinx interpretation of Sophocles’s classical Greek tragedy created by Shey ‘Rí Acu’ Rivera Ríos. Directed by Jackie Davis. Choreography by Shaffany Terrell. Costume design by Maria Del Carmen Mercado. Staged by Wilbury Theatre Group at the WaterFire Arts Center, Providence, through April 10.

After this run, the show will travel to the Magdalena Festival produced by Double Edge Theater in Ashfield, M,A on April 23. The festival includes performances and gatherings from worldwide women, nonbinary, and trans artists.

A scene from the Wilbury Theatre Group production of AntigonX. Photo: Erin X. Smithers

The Wilbury Theater Group’s wonderful new black box at the Waterfire Arts Center accomplishes two important theatrical goals. It is a terrific example of how towns and cities can empower community by investing in a space for performance. And AntigonX, the company’s current offering, shows how innovation lifts new voices and ideas.

In AntigonX, a powerful reimagining of the third play in Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle, Shey Rivera Ríos draws on imagery, ritual, dance, and song to animate a rethink of a classic tragedy about a sister losing her brothers. This 2,000-year-old Greek play has been relocated to a Caribbean island called Abundancia. The name is misleading — not everyone shares the wealth in this land of plenty. The island’s political climate sets the rich and well-connected against the marginalized poor. The island’s governor, Creón Rosal Colón Guerra, exudes all the plastic charisma of an informercial host when he pops up to advertise real estate deals on a large video screen. He promises that investors in the island will receive tax incentives, live in gated communities, and relax in the sun on private beaches. His concluding pitch:“We will build better.”

The play begins with a quartet of performers gathering into a ritual space: Rivera Ríos (Antigona), Violeta Cruz Del Valle (Ismene, sister to Antigona), Marcel A. Mascaro (Tiresias, a seer), and Shaffany Terrell, who provides movement and dance along with turns as some functional characters. Tiresias wills the play into being and offers “blessings to you, my kin.” A Caney Circle is enacted, a ritual begun by the Taino, Indigenous people of the Caribbean islands. It predates the Sophocles text. The circle embraces four directions: Achianu (South), Koromo (West), Rakuno (North), and Sobaiko (East). This ceremony is stunning, beautifully staged by director Jackie Davis.

The story begins when the ritual ends with news of the death of the brothers of Antigona and Ismene. Abey Amal (Eteocles in the source story) was the pro-government warrior; Casimar Joel (Polyneices in the Greek story) opposed authoritarian rule. Creón Rosal Colón decrees that Abey Amal will be buried as a hero and Casimar Joel ignored, his body left to rot. Anyone who goes against the decree will be punished. Both Antigona and Ismene are left heartbroken by the unjust decision, but Antigona acts, giving the body of Casimar Joel the burial ritual that will ensure his peaceful movement into the afterlife. “How can I heal my family if I am not allowed my grief,” Antigona cries.

Shey ‘Ri Acu’ Rivera Ríos in a scene from the Wilbury Theatre Group production of AntigonX. Photo: Erin X. Smithers.

As in the original Greek tragedy, AntigonX poses the elemental value of family bonds against the pragmatic prerogatives of political power. Antigona (who, like Rivera Ríos, uses nonbinary pronouns) sees it as their duty to safeguard their loved ones — their brother’s spirit must live on in the next life. They know the penalty for their actions and are willing to pay that price to respect the spirits and protect the future. Rivera Ríos’s Antigona taps into the radical individualism of  Sophocles’s Antigone. Their other surviving sibling, Ismene, sees a collective value to the situation: “To me, my community was my path to healing,” she declares toward the end of the play.

In a crisp 70 minutes, Rivera Ríos brings together past and present. The shift from Thebes to the Puerto Rico-like island lends a colorful immediacy to the story. Somehow, though, it doesn’t pin this age-old conflict down, reducing its splendid plangency. AntigonX could be set anywhere, including Ukraine or, given the script’s resonances with queer culture, even Florida.

Still, the Caribbean setting unleashes some magical examples of theatrical design thanks to Saul Rámos Espola’s spectacular setting, which is simultaneously sterile and fertile. Also, Maria Del Carmen Mercado’s sumptuous costumes are festive, redolent of the air of tropical breezes.

As the narrator as well as the spiritual center of evening, Mascaro, as  Tiresias, maintains a sturdy hand, making specific and clear choices throughout. Although Shaffany Terrell is listed as “Ensemble” in the cast list, her dance, which she also choreographed, adds considerable depth to the play’s emotional power.

A shortcoming to the production, at least on opening night, was the relationship between the traumatized siblings, Antigona and Ismene. Rivera Ríos possesses a tremendous strength and depth as a performer but seemed to be holding back, underplaying confrontations between the two. Cruz Del Valle has a beautiful singing voice and at times approached her character with confidence. But on occasion she seemed to be reaching for her lines as well. This relationship is at the center of the play: once the performers become more comfortable, I have no doubt that the pair will do it justice.

Given its many elements (music, dance, ritual, imagery, and a bilingual script), AntigonX is a complicated performance piece that could easily have become confusing. Davis and playwright Rivera Ríos sensed that danger and have staged the show with impressive clarity. And that includes pulling off AntigonX‘s inspirational trajectory, which departs from Sophocles’s bleak denouement. In this version, the authoritarian government is overthrown — Abundancia becomes Borikén, the traditional indigenous name of Puerto Rico. Given the deeply depressing news from Ukraine and elsewhere around the world, this comforting message is welcome.

David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.

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