The Sedgwick Theater in Germantown, just below Chestnut Hill, is an adventure in itself. One walks through an amazing Art Deco ruin, into a small converted portion of an old theater that has approximately 90 seats, with a high unrestored ceiling and chandelier. Seating is on three sides of a small thrust stage that has a simple platform, stairs, poles and 3 doors that suggest Greek Theater, but other eras as well.
The play is a similar hybrid, a French adaptation of Sophocles’ ANTIGONE that premiered in Paris during the Occupation of World War II. While the work retains the oratorical long- windiness so beloved of classic French Theater, it is essentially a modern play, with the chorus replaced by one gentleman, who, in very contemporary terminology, explains the background.
The story remains essentially the same. Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, commits treason by going against the will of her uncle, Creon, now King of Thebes. For religious reasons, the princess must bury the body of her brother, killed in an attempt to seize the throne. For political reasons, Creon must humiliate all rebels who attempt to overthrow him. Obviously, the real setting is 1944 Paris, with the resistance growing more effective against the cruel Nazi occupiers. Anouilh sent a coded message to those Frenchmen who debased themselves through collaboration, and those who risked their lives trying to overthrow the Third Reich: There is civic order and there is moral order. Which one are you going to follow?
Quintessence Theatre Group, led by Artistic Director Alexander Burns, is proving that Philadelphia has the actors with the chops to perform classical theater, and that there is an audience for the lesser-known works of playwrights like Moliere and Goldoni. Everyone is successful this time around.
The pivotal scene of Anouilh’s play involves a long confrontation between Antigone, Lavita Shaurice, and Creon, Robert Jason Jackson. These actors exude a powerful stage presence, clear action and emotional directness. Shaurice verges on the edge of madness as she pursues her goal with impressive intensity, while Jackson remains tormented but duty bound. The audience not only enters the scene, but receives a dose of star quality as well.
The entire cast is impressive handling the complex, (and frequently clumsy), translation of Jeremy Sams, with Sean Bradley adding a well needed touch of comic relief as a feckless soldier. Also impressive are Cheryl Williams, and Chris Davis, as the nurse and Antigone’s lover. The cast is at the service of the language and the emotion is never allowed to override the understanding of the words.
John Williams is soft spoken and kindly as “The Prologue”. At intervals, he interrupts the action, to offer thoughts on what is going on. A favorite observation is that tragedy is “restful” because we know there is no escape, while drama is exciting because we think escape is possible.
The costumes by Jane Casanave, are modern suits with nondescript uniforms for the soldiers. Indeed, at times the audience might be observing a developing dictatorship in a modern African or Middle Eastern country. In a delightful switch on twentieth century theater custom, the royal family, (meaning all the large roles), are played by African Americans, with the lesser servants and soldiers, relegated to the whites. Mike Billings’ lighting is dramatic when it needs to be and director Burns creates many impressive stage pictures.
Quintessence means “the concentrated essence of a substance.” Burns and the group have certainly found the quintessence of Anouilh’s play. They will face an entirely different group of challenges with their next production of THE SEAGULL.
by Jean Anouilh
Directed by Alexander Burns
Extended through April 1, 2012
Quintessence Theatre Group
7127 Germantown Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19119