As a first-year in Jonathan Edwards College, I was fortunate enough to be selected for Culture Draw, a sponsored event in which students can win tickets to New York opera, ballet, and Broadways shows. Presented with a variety of options, I wrote my name down for Antigone, Sophocles’ classic tragedy. When I entered the Park Avenue Armory, I expected to see just that—a tragedy. Yet, Miyagi succeeded in pushing the boundaries of my own imagination by doing the unthinkable: transforming the stage into a massive pool of water and presenting a tragedy with a distinctly un-tragic character. Situated in Buddhist tradition and Japanese Noh, the play undergoes metamorphosis. The tragic story of a young woman who dares to challenge the authority of the state and loses her life is transformed; it becomes one where boundaries between the living and dead are blurred. When Antigone makes her stand against the laws of man in the land of living, she stands by the infinite number of spirits in the land of the dead. As an iconoclast who dared to defy the authority of King Creon in favor of unwritten moral law, Antigone is a character typically depicted as a person who stands alone in her decision, yet the inclusion of spirits from the Land of the Dead makes a provocative statement about the nature of defiance. The intermittent appearances of the spirits throughout the play contribute to the fluidity of life and death, an effect enhanced by the pool of water used as a stage.
To watch Satoshi Miyagi’s production of Antigone is to watch three plays at once:—the shadow play between the characters against the wall, the precisely choreographed motions of the movers, and the poignant voice acting of the speakers.
Rather than having one actor play each character, the director innovatively divided each role into “speakers” and “movers.” Speakers were solely responsible for voice acting and remained stationary on stage, while movers were responsible for physically acting out the part and bringing the voices to life. Again, Miyagi elevates standard practice in theater to symbolize power dynamics between characters. King Creon, the uncle of the protagonist who rules in the place of Antigone’s brother, is represented by multiple speakers at once. The sheer force of multiple actors speaking Creon’s part at the same time was symbolic of the authority of the state, contrasted to the single “mover” that physically acted out the role of Creon. This contrast led to me to consider the ways in which state authority is invoked and the relationship between power of the ruler and the state. Immediately, the absolute monarchs of the Enlightenment came to mind, like Louis XIV, who declared “L’etat, c’est moi” (I am the state). Creon asserts his power because he is the absolute ruler of the state, but he is only one man. The voices of his speakers echoed loudly in the theater, yet when I looked to the wall behind the stage, the mere shadow of a single person was projected—reminding me that the politics of power is ultimately personal.
In contrast to Judeo-Christian ideas about the nature of death, Miyagi provides his audience with an alternative narrative, one in which death operates neutrally. Eteocles meets the same fate as his brother Polyneices, a young prince who unsuccessfully attempts to usurp his brother’s throne. Death, as conceived in the Buddhist tradition, is a democratizing force providing peace and rest for both the evil and the good alike. In doing so, the politics of morality, justice, and power are radically shifted. The notion that both the good and evil meet the same fate after death presented a substantive challenge to my worldview. As Satoshi Miyagi stated in an interview, “If you consider earthly power… through the eyes of the dead one sees that the prosperity and riches of the world we live in are devoid of value.” Proper burial of the traitorous brother Polyneices does not legitimize his wrongdoing, it is simply a means for a soul to finally rest in peace.
This production of Antigone joins a long line of renditions that prove the transcendence of this 2,500-year-old play that has provoked questions about the cost of civil disobedience, reverence for the dead, and the role of cultural memory in society.