Review: "Antigone" at Young People’s Theatre

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Whenever I see a production of a classic Greek play, I’m always a tad leery of what to expect for the fact I have never found these stories particularly interesting. I know, an English major/French minor who should have studied and respected these works.  I know, I know, and I did. I’ve always enjoyed most of the Shakespearean works but there was something about the Greek plays that just never intrigued me to want to attend.

I wasn’t going to allow this prejudicial thought to live rent free in my head today and would give this play another go at it. I was pleased to have stayed for the Q & A after the performance as I learned a few things of which I wasn’t aware. The story’s premise is the same. Tensions mount when Antigone rebels against her father’s wishes and wants to bury her brother who died in battle fighting his own brother. Antigone’s father believed one brother deserved full burial honours while the other should rot unburied.

In this YPT production, the words and images are all by playwright Jeff Ho as he has transferred the story and uses it to his Chinese background with references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and the Hong Kong student umbrella protest in 2014.

I’ll let you know shortly if my opinion of ‘Antigone’ has changed.

Theatrically, this production is a striking one to view for the 75-minute running time. Upon entering the auditorium, we are treated to theatre in the round by Set Designer Christine Urquhart which works extremely well for this production. Seeing the audience sitting across from me allowed to watch their faces and their emotional responses. The draped flags which hang in the house incorporate bold colours which do not delineate any country as the world we are about to enter is a self-contained universe with its Supreme Leader played with the utmost of compassion by Soo Garay.

Rebecca Picherack’s brightly focussed criss-cross lighting design at the top of the show was noteworthy as it seemed to create a world of place and space from which no one dared tried to move forward. Movement Director Viv Moore has created potently compelling movement of chorus members which creates vivid pictures throughout the play.

Co-directors Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo had a solid hand to ensure their bold vision of intense drama was clearly maintained, and some of the performances heightened this vision immeasurably.

Jasmine Chen and John Ng as Antigone and Kreon are dynamic and electrifying to watch. Their emotional depths and heights were, at times, breathtaking and I was fascinated by their movements on stage. Christopher Allen’s Guard also caught my attention each time he appeared as he was always in the moment of the event.

I can recall hearing the news in 1989 of the uprising in Tiananmen Square. I was attending the first Toronto production of ‘Les Miserables’ (another interesting connection) and wanted to get home to see the news of what was happening in China. A stunning vivid picture for me at this performance was watching the actor with his hand raised to stop the onslaught of the trucks moving in to clear the square.

The use of the red umbrellas representing the events from Hong Kong 2014 was also stunning to watch.  The closed umbrellas became weapons of the army while the wide-open red umbrellas were the dead. My heart was bleeding for Jasmine Grey as she made her way among the red umbrellas representing the dead. An extremely poignant moment.

Yes, this production is a daring one and I am always enthralled when companies premiere live theatrical works. This ‘Antigone’ is successful theatrically on this account.

Now, has my opinion changed about the tragic Greek story after seeing Mr. Ho’s story? No, it hasn’t. I get it that we see a daughter who stands up to her father and wants to instil the right that has been wronged to her brother.  During the Q & A, before the audience began to ask questions actor Jeff Yung asked us to answer the following: ‘In the event of the law of the land and personal law, which one should be followed?”

An excellent question to pose and several audience members did respond. Yes, that question did give me some further insight into the ‘Antigone’ premise but not enough to sustain my interest in the story itself. We also learned that Mr. Ho was also present at both events – he was in his mother’s belly in 1989 and he travelled to Hong Kong to be with the student protestors.  Again, admirable and noteworthy events and Mr. Ho is brave for travelling to Hong Kong during the 2014 protests. But I’m still not intrigued in the ‘Antigone’ connection. If Mr. Ho’s text dealt somehow more specifically with the 1989 and 2014 uprising, then yes that would have possibly intrigued me further.

‘Antigone’ continues to May 16 in the Mainspace Theatre at Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto. For tickets call the Box Office at (416) 862-2222. You may also visit their website at www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca.

Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.  There will be a Q & A after some of the performances.

Photo: Members of the ‘Antigone’ ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Cast: Christopher Allen, Aldrin Bundoc, Jasmine Chen, Simon Gagnon, Soo Garay, Rachel Mutombo, John Ng, Jeff Yung.

Directed by Stephen Colelle and Karen Gilodo; Set and Costumes: Christine Urquhart; Lighting: Rebecca Picherack; Sound: David Mesiha; Movement Director: Viv Moore; Stage Manager: Kate Duncan.