Company members mentioned in this article: Rick Sims, Heidi Stillman, Philip R Smith, Larry DiStasi, Christine Mary Dunford, Andy White, Daniel Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld, Andre Pluess, Ray Nardelli and Christine A. Binder
by Dan Zeff
Copley News Service
June 6, 2005
THREE STARS out of four
CHICAGO - The Lookingglass Theatre's "Hillbilly Antigone" is a bizarre blend of ancient Greek tragedy and Hee Haw-style comedy. It's a preposterous show but perversely entertaining, especially for people with a tolerance for country music.
The show was put together by Rick Sims (story, book, music, and lyrics) and Heidi Stillman (co-author of the story and the director). They adapted their musical from the ancient Greek drama "Antigone" by Sophocles, one of the great plays in Western culture.
In the Sophocles original, Antigone is a Greek princess. Her brother dies in a rebellion against King Creon. The king issues an edict that the brother not be given a religious burial, a huge insult in ancient Greek culture. Antigone buries her brother in violation of Creon's order and dies, along with her lover, Haemon, who is Creon's son. Creon's wife also commits suicide, leaving the king a desolate survivor of his rash law. For centuries, the character of Antigone has symbolized the individual standing up to the tyranny of the state. In burying her brother, she obeys a higher authority than the vindictive power of the government.
In "Hillbilly Antigone," the action has been relocated to Badd Mountain, somewhere in the Deep South. Creon is the fanatical religious leader of the community, a man who controls and manipulates through fear and the authority of his religious position. For generations the Badd Mountain community has been ravaged by a Hatfield-McCoys type feud between Creon's Waller family and Antigone's Flick family. Creon kills Antigone's brother and orders him hung from a tree as a caution to others who flaunt his power. Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother. The ingredients are thus in place for a stimulating updating of the Greek story to modern times, when religious fanaticism is a used as a tool to dominate the easily led common people.
But "Hillbilly Antigone" turns into more hillbilly than Antigone. The characters are grotesque stereotypes of Appalachian rednecks. The audience is invited to patronize the characters and the opening night spectators responded with much laughter mocking the oafs on stage.
The comedy is reinforced by a three-piece bluegrass band who chime in with vocal and instrumental numbers reflecting the style of the famous Carter family. The music will be of most interest to those familiar with the Carter sound or who enjoy that kind of music. The small minority, present company included, will listen and continue to wonder at what enthusiasts hear in country music.
The final 20 minutes of the story turn into a complete shambles.
Revelations of incest are brought in from left field, Antigone survives all the bloodletting to live happily ever after, and Creon winds up in the electric chair. One got the feeling that Stillman and Sims sat around during rehearsals trying to top each other with the most outlandish plot twists to end their show. So what we end up with is a lot of cornball humor performed by characters with Gomer Pyle accents, well-played bluegrass music to be enjoyed by patrons who like well-played bluegrass music, and a wasted opportunity to create an intriguing take on the Antigone story for our times. The show's creators try to have it both ways - tragedy and comedy. Tragedy got left in the dust early, upstaged by cartoon ghosts and ludicrous plotting that goes way off the rails.
On the positive side, this being a Lookingglass show, the production is creative and the performances are first rate. The story is told within an interior that looks like a room made of corrugated metal. There are innovative visual effects and deliberate silliness, like the fierce Creon riding a horse made of an oil drum with a cutout horse head attached. The ensemble is led by Philip R. Smith, who plays Creon like a genuine menacing and sinister figure. Smith would be a pleasure to watch in a production that respected the Sophocles drama as the masterpiece it is. Lawrence DiStasi is a hoot as what passes for the village idiot.
Mattie Hawkinson plays Antigone like Annie Oakley in "Annie get Your Gun," as good an interpretation as any given what she's allowed to work with. Cynthia Baker gives off plenty of dramatic sparks as a blind Holy Roller grandmother.
The live music is performed by Andrew White, Rick Sims, and Christine Mary Dunford, all accomplished musicians and singers. They also look striking as living ghosts in their coffins. The ensemble is completed by Keith Kupferer, Chris Mathews, Tracy Walsh and Matt Ziegler. Everyone is excellent. There is nothing wrong with the manner of the show. The matter is something else. The designers all do their part - Daniel Ostling (scenery), Chris Binder (lighting), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), and Andre Pluess and Ray Nardelli (sound). Dawn Victoria Dudley is credited with the wig and hair design, which gives some of the characters their intentionally mangy look.
So spectators looking for a jocular evening of country music and country humor will find much to like in "Hillbilly Antigone." Meanwhile, Sophocles spins in his grave like a lathe.