“It’s kind of Antigone In Wonderland,” said Erin Merritt, founder of Woman’s Will, the Oakland-based all-female Shakespeare and classics troupe (who nonetheless have staged Brecht-Weill’s Happy End and Oscar Wilde’s The Important of Being Earnest), about its Bay Area premiere of contemporary playwright Mac Wellman’s Antigone, opening this week at the Temescal Arts Center on Tele-graph in North Oak-land.
Familiar to most from school, where Sophocles’ original tragedy ranks with his Oedipus Rex as probably the most fa-miliar of classic plays, Wellman’s version seems to be the least faithful—at least on the surface—to the ancient text of all the many adaptations (including those by Brecht, Anouilh and Cocteau) penned over the past two millenia.
“From the audience, it looks totally different,” said Merritt. “The same classical structure is there, but the characters from the original are hardly ever glimpsed. Wellman has it as the Three Fates, like three schoolgirls, playacting Antigone’s story as they spin it out, using this play-within-a-play as the springboard for the Three Fates to become the Three Graces.”
Wellman, also a novelist and poet, whose work has been characterized as “pulverizing the syntax of traditional theater” and not to be “summarized or translated into any other medium,” deals with logic and illogic and the shifting nature of ordinary language in trying to deal with the great questions of identity, community, law and justice, that sense of nonsense being another point of comparison with Lewis Carroll’s sublime dream-tale.
“Most storytelling is horizontal,” Merritt said, “from point to point, episodes on a timeline. Wellman’s is vertical—it’s several stories, all at once, stacked on top of each other. Like in a dream, it makes sense while it’s happening, but it can be hard to decipher later. So we’re asking audiences to stay for a talkback after every show, to collaborate with us by telling what they saw. Everybody always sees things differently, anyway. It’s a really heady piece. Those who’ve taken philosophy classes will get references to the centuries-long logical arguments in the play, but everybody, including kids, will enjoy seeing it, just as a piece of fun.”
He said crossword puzzle solvers and game players will love it.
“It uses logic and illogic to create an alternative reality, to push past the ordinary into the wonderful—and we stage that by juggling different genres and metaphors,” he said. “We have sort of a rave aesthetic.”
Besides the Fates, there’s a fourth character, the Shriek Operator, named after a typographical mark in philosophical discussions that resembles an exclamation point, “a unique, unrepeatable situation ... which yanks and jangles the Fates, pushing them into contradiction and out of it again.”
Woman’s Will has a blog with rehearsal notes from some of the actors (http://womanswill.blogspot.com), one that compares the play to a production of Streetcar Named Desire, as if the characters would holler out “Stella!”
“Our audiences are used to seeing our all-female casts infuse difficultly worded classics with references to modern day,” said Merritt. “This time, we simply take them farther down the rabbit hole with us to Wonderland. It’s a play for those full of curiosity to enjoy—about puzzles, not answers.”
Fri.-Sun. 8 p.m.
Temescal Arts Center, 511 48th St., Oakland
through Nov. 11