The basement theater at La Val’s on the north side of campus is stark white, chairs painted white stand or hang at most of the corners, and a big white table is planted on its side, facing out, at another. Two white uniformed young men lie dead against the upended tabletop, while a disconsolate young woman in white sits nearby.
An armed figure in gas mask—also in white, everything white—emerges to the muddy sound of heavy bombardment, hands the woman a paper, which makes her gasp ...
See How We Are, Jon Tracy’s adaptation—or play off of—Antigone, opens this way in Impact Theatre’s premiere, which Tracy also directed, designed and lit. After many flashbacks, twists and turns, it also ends here, too, with the beginning of Sophocles’ tragedy.
See How We Are provides the backstory of the young people in a modern, even futuristic (it has the feel at times of old science fiction films, a double anachronism) Antigone: the three children of a modern Oedipus, a never-seen patrician politico named Banks; the daughter (not son) of another politico named Sullivan (the Creon substitute, audible occasionally in broadcasts to the Theban public), girlfriend to Ari, aka Antigone; and the working class boyfriend of debutantish Izzy (Ismene), for whom there’s no original in tragedy. (Tiresias is rendered as Theresa, a fortuneteller Izzy remembers her father bringing home to dinner.)
The action turns around—and around—a series of scenes, depicting the uneasy fraternal partnership of managerial James (Ryan Trasker) and impulsive Paul (Seth Tygesen), pairing up to rule the city after their father’s demise; a dinner party at Izzy’s (around the table, right side up) that begins with awkward offerings of bouquets (all spray-painted white) to the hostess and her introduction of her new boyfriend Jud (Rob Dario) to Ari (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) and their brothers—and ends in mayhem, with Ari’s girlfriend Hayl (Jacqueline Hawks) storming through the door, belligerent and suicidal; with Jud picking up Izzy, who he recognizes from the media, in the punk club he books acts for; and the civil war between the brothers, with their bloody reunion in no-man’s-land, somehow playful in a locker-room kind of way.
The characters’ tart, caustic lines provoked a good deal of the audience’s audible response. Its gaminess has the air of a cocktail party that’s gone on too long, or soap opera played for laughs—or maybe the underbelly of situation comedy.
Modern adaptations of Greek Tragedy have gone in this direction for a long time: Byron penned a burlesque of the opening of Medea; German Romantic theater took tragedy to the edge of psychological drama, the trend fulfilled later by Cocteau and Anouilh making Antigone into domestic drama—in the second production of Cocteau’s, the characters wore special costumes and fencing masks to resemble “a family of insects.”
Tracy’s adaptation maybe resonates more with Eugene O’Neill’s post-Civil War version of The Oresteia, Mourning Becomes Electra—another mythic Grecian family, another Freudian complex, this time on the distaff side.
See How We Are plays with melodrama, something always at least borderline funny, stopping when tragedy is invoked, when the characters are ready to step out of their brawling domestic scene into the civic (and ethical) space of the tragic. What’s been performed is more like a burlesque of that Freudian project, the Family Romance, with a kind of implicit social critique—which seems typical of Tracy’s productions, the latest being his adaptation of Orwell for Shotgun’s The Farm, which just closed at Hinkel Park.
Like The Farm, there’s stylistic integrity to the production; the performance touching on stylization without committing itself to its rigors. Tracy’s written and directed other plays in different forms, all showing his manner. He has an interest in character, confrontation and dialogue, whatever the specific form. The upshot of a few, like this one, spills back into parody.
It’s one of the most interesting things Impact has staged—and Melissa Hillman and Cheshire Isaacs, ever-aware of their audience, are always on the look-out for something innovative, attention-grabbing. See How We Are is played energetically, contrasting with the poise of some formal invention. Sometimes it feels like a sketch acted out on the set of an unfinished spectacle, a kind of pantomime of what the audience isn’t seeing. That may be one of Tracy’s intended effects, a social comedy of unfulfilled promises. If so, the humor’s only partly realized. But he deserves credit for the intention, and for the theatricality of the means he plainly intends to work in.
SEE HOW WE ARE
Presented by Impact Theatre at 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday through Oct. 17 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave. $12-$20. www.impacttheatre.com.