Article: The workout that is ‘Antigone’

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 The Greek chorus in Wilma Theater Company's production of 'Antigone.' (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

The Greek chorus in Wilma Theater Company's production of 'Antigone.' (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)

It’s a safe bet that the ancient Greek classics, in which the gods and fate control the plot, never looked or felt quite the way they do these nights at the Wilma Theater in Center City. There, the Wilma’s production of “Antigone,” which Sophocles wrote nearly 2,500 years ago, is being done with a new, extreme technique that makes radical demands on its actors.

The show has been three years in the making, ever since Wilma’s artistic director, Blanka Zizka, contacted a director in Athens named Theodoros Terzopoulos – a man known around Europe for his interpretations of the Greek classics, and for a technique he uses that requires arduous body and voice training by his actors. Zizka brought Terzopoulos over to Philadelphia for a five-day workshop in that method with actors who work at the Wilma, and after that, she and Terzopoulos decided to collaborate here.

The result: A highly unusual production of “Antigone,” the tale about a woman who buries her dead brother against the command of horrible King Creon, who calls her brother a traitor. Fate (as well as the gods) rules the day in the play which, like so much ancient Greek drama, pits instinct against logic.

It’s all very heady, and in Terzopoulos’ method, extreme. He has actors maintaining positions that, under normal circumstances, we put our bodies in only while moving. The 11 performers might also stomp as they walk, or roll on the stage floor in slow and deliberate ways as they speak. And when they speak, the sound comes from very low points in their bodies – haunting, sometimes, as if the gods are speaking through them. One actor even delivers lines while he exhales and also while he inhales, without taking a silent breath.

In order to perform in these extreme states, the cast does something else unusual – before every show the actors limber up at a training that takes about as long as the 80-minute production they’re about to do. Under the command of an assistant director, they circle the middle of the stage and begin to work fingers, toes, muscles, vocal chords, diaphrams, lungs and their entire bodies. Sometimes when they breathe in long exhalations together, they sound like snakes hissing.

I wondered why this demanding workout was necessary until I saw “Antigone” a few nights after I witnessed a pre-play training session. In one scene with dialogue, the Greek chorus of six actors forms a line across the stage as they tilt backward and forward in lunging motions.

“Occasionally we will shift the positions of our arms. Occasionally, we will change the levels of our bodies,” says local actor Brian Ratcliffe, among several cast members the Wilma sent to Greece for training. “But it’s all done in unison and it’s all done very slowly and methodically, and results in some very strenuous positions that have to be held in a way that looks effortless.”

In another tough move, the actors contort their faces so that they seem to be wearing masks of tragedy which, Ratcliffe says, is a “very open and dilated expression – the eyes are wide, the mouth is open. It’s not done in a caricatured or grotesque way but it’s a face full of awe, as though you are witnessing a tremendously important, maybe catastrophic, maybe horrible, maybe beautiful event – something outside the scope of our day-to-day life. We maintain that mask for 95 percent of the performance.”

Yes, you can try this at home. But I wouldn’t suggest for long, because if you do it right there’s really no way to swallow, a fact that becomes obvious on a Wilma stage that can get very wet.

“Antigone” is a stunning display that lends itself to the life-and-death conflicts that pit instinct against logic in ancient Greek texts. Terzopoulos says that after he began directing ancient Greek drama decades ago, he decided “it is difficult, I needed a technique.”

That technique developed over time, as did his idea of making the body and the voice larger than usual, he says. Greek tragedy “is a big idea for theater, for the human being. Without stamina, big energy, concentration, discipline, it’s impossible to work on big ancient texts.”

“Antigone” plays with a mix of actors from Philadelphia and Greece, and it’s in English, Greek and ancient Greek, with surtitles. The play is at the Wilma, on Broad Street between Locust and Spruce Streets, through Nov. 8.

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