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Stephanie Berger

Satoshi Miyagi’s ‘Antigone’

A rocky crag, surrounded by water on all sides, seems an appropriate perch for Antigone, Sophocles’ absolutist heroine—especially if that water is fed by the river Styx. The idea that running water forms the boundary between life and death is common to Greek and Japanese myths, as seen in the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center company’s strange, absorbing Antigone at the Park Avenue Armory. In a production that fuses Eastern and Western theatrical traditions, characters stand on tiny, barren islands, cut off from one another by a Stygian lake, as they enact in Japanese (with English supertitles) Antigone’s doom-struck defiance of an oppressive, irreligious ruler—her uncle Creon. 

Japanese directors have often turned to Greek tragedy, a genre that, as staged in classical Athens, shared certain formal features with Noh theater: masks, stylized dances and movements, and plots drawn from the world of myth. For this Antigone, director Satoshi Miyagi has developed these parallels into a rich dialogue of religious and cultural traditions. “The polytheistic way of thinking in pre-Christian Greece is actually something very familiar to us in Japan,” he says in an interview that’s printed in the program. “So we don’t feel that doing Antigone is importing something from Western culture, but something we can touch quite directly.”

The connections can at times be opaque—a Buddhist monk floated improbably onto the stage on a raft at the start and end of the play—but at other times helped highlight the elemental quality of Sophocles’ drama. Antigone’s struggle to bury the corpse of her brother and thus honor the gods’ laws, rather than those of the state, is a tale uniquely suited to cultural boundary-crossings.

In the Armory production, Miyagi draws on the style of Bunraku puppet theater by having his actors remain mute, performing slow, pantomimic movements while reciters, kneeling in the water beside them, serve as their voices. The effect is sober and austere, as though the main characters are superhuman beings, too lofty to produce sound. Lights directed at them from below cast enormous shadows on the Armory’s rear wall—another evocation of Asian puppet theater—and further enlarge the dimensions of these mythic beings. Meanwhile, the chorus, draped in ethereal white veils, shuffles disconsolately through the ankle-deep water, as the orchestra’s percussion beats out a foreboding, sometimes frenetic musical score.

Modern directors often struggle with the choral odes that interrupt the action of Greek tragedies, but Miyagi successfully stages the odes of Antigone, partly by acknowledging their artificiality. The singers begin by inviting the audience to enjoy a musical interlude; the songs and choral dances that follow are some of the production’s most effective moments.   

But not all of Miyagi’s choices are happy ones. A brief prologue previews the plot of the play in a jokey, puerile style completely out of tune with the production itself. Theatergoers are advised to tune out this needless and tasteless opening segment, and enjoy the intriguing fusion of Greek and Japanese theatrical traditions that follows.   


For more information, visit armoryonpark.org.

Category: Theater
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue,
New York, NY