Marvels and Terrors
Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca
Reviewed by Christopher Bernard
“In the world there are many terrors and marvels,
but none more marvelous, and more terrifying, than man.”
—Sophocles, from his tragedy Antigone
Noche Flamenca brought its dance version of Sophocles’ famous tragedy to Z Space in San Francisco for an unfortunately short run this February. (Short because, as the result of an injury, the first week of performances had to be cancelled.)
However, the rest of the run remains, and there is still time to see one of the most intense evenings in dance you are likely to see this season.
Sophocles’ searing play touches on some of the profoundest issue of human life: family versus the state, love versus politics, the gods versus man, feminine versus masculine values.
Noche Flamenca’s flamenco version is a driving, ultimately both thrilling and moving, version of this foundational story of the west. The cante jondo of the men was piercing, and Soledad Barrio’s dancing headily dramatic on the night I saw it: her presence on stage was both heroic and vulnerable, as Antigone’s must be. She also provided the powerful choreography (with additional choreography by Isabel Bayón), which includes several magnificent and especially memorable group sets in the last third of the performance; ancillary to that, the vision of the long, freed hair of three women from the chorus hanging down a black screen, their faces invisible, at the back of the stage is as powerful a theatrical image as I have seen in a very long time.
The staging was spare and dark, with the musicians onstage. The music was rendered with panache and a dark joy, especially by the guitarists Eugenio Iglesias and Salva de Maria and the elaborate, precise percussion of David “Chupete” Rodriguez.
Having said this, this performance had a few problems, mostly with the play’s highly complicated, and inescapable, exposition, something that dance can have a hard time doing well. Antigone’s back story cannot be quickly sketched without seeming slightly ridiculous (someone once said that the difference between tragedy and comedy is speed; even the profoundest tragedy can sound silly when told too quickly). And, although comedy, when well paced in a tragic story (as Shakespeare is so adept at), enhances the tragic effect, when poorly paced or thrown about cavalierly, it undermines that effect, leaving behind a slightly sour taste. The direction of Martin Santangelo does not always avoid this problem.
The story of Antigone continues the notorious one of Oedipus, the victim of a prophecy that he would one day murder his father and wed his mother, whose father, after hearing the prophecy, does the very thing that makes the terrible things he is trying to avoid happen: he tries to kill his own son by ordering one of his subjects, a shepherd, to leave the infant to die on a hillside. The shepherd, more humane than the paranoid king, takes pity on the guiltless babe and, hiding the child, brings him up as one of his own. One day, as a young man, Oedipus meets an old man with an entourage who refuses to let him pass by peaceably at a crossroads and Oedipus, in a scuffle, kills the old man. Later Oedipus goes later to a city called Thebes and, by cleverly answering the question of the Sphinx that holds the place in thrall, raises a plague that has decimated the town. Oedipus is welcomed by the city’s survivors with universal acclamation and made their king, as their old king had died under mysterious circumstances, and allowed to wed the old king’s wife.
The years go by and the royal couple have children, two daughters and two sons, who have just reached adulthood when a second plague descends upon the city. A sage named Tiresias declares the plague has been caused by the existence of a terrible and unnatural criminal in the city, whom Oedipus is then determined to discover. And he discovers he himself is that very criminal: the old man he had killed at the crossroads was his father and the woman he had married at Thebes, Jocasta, is his mother. Jocasta hangs herself out of horror and shame and Oedipus blinds himself and leaves the city to wander in exile with his daughter Antigone, who, out of love and loyalty, joins him.
Years pass. Oedipus dies and Antigone returns to Thebes, where her two brothers have both become kings of Thebes, taking the throne on alternate years. But one of them becomes greedy for power and one day refuses to abdicate for his brother’s turn, upon which the betrayed brother declares war on the city. In a face-to-face fight, the two brothers die at each other’s hands, leaving Creon, their uncle, as king. Creon declares that the defending brother will be buried with honors but the brother who led the attack on the city shall be treated as a traitor and refused burial, the deepest desecration of the dead and, for religious believers, an insult to the gods. Antigone defies Creon’s order, out of love for her brother and out of reverence for the gods.
This will give the reader an idea of why it is so difficult to summarize briefly the background to the play, though without it, the full scale of Antigone’s tragedy cannot be understood.
Noche Flamenca tries to stage this through a part-narrative, part-staging of the back story, with mixed results. The effect is at once over-stuffed and over-driven, and is not always helped by the would-be comic antics of the master of ceremonies. Another weakness is that, since Antigona only dances and does not speak, she is never given her part in the central arguments of the play, which are essential for the tragedy to be made absolutely clear; her position against her uncle is given, too late in the script for it to have its full weight, by the blind sage Tiresias (in a wonderful turn by flamenco singer Pepe “El Bocadillo”): Antigona seems to defy her uncle for essentially sentimental (that is, weak) reasons, but the profoundly philosophical and religious reasons that have made Antigone to this day one of the most controversial works of literature ever conceived are only mentioned, almost in passing.
Creon (Creonte in this version) comes across as little more than a small-town tyrant, not the representative of worldly power facing the absolute demands of the gods. The character of Ismene is turned into a preening, modern narcissistic “beotch”—one half expects her to take a selfie with her pocket mirror; this is an unnecessary and distracting sop to contemporary sensibilities. And the staging of the deaths of Antigona, Haemon her lover and Haemon’s mother (and Creon’s wife) is almost hokey in its extreme concision; again, the warning about comedy and tragedy comes to mind.
But this is principally a performance of dance, and for that there must be high praise (if only there had been a few genuinely softer moments: two hours of drilling heel stamps punctuated by cynical postmodern humor can feel grueling at times), especially of a fine Marina Elana, a noble Juan Ogalla, and an often astonishing Soledad Barrio. The intense, deliberately rough but imaginative staging included the use of masks (traditional in Greek tragedy) based on the work of Mary Frank. The legendary Lee Beuer was consulting director.
Christopher Bernard is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector. His novel Voyage to a Phantom City appeared in 2016. His new book of poetry, Chien Lunatique, will appear in May.