From Ancient Greece to Franco’s Spain

by Leigh Witchel

Transposing a Greek tragedy to the 20th century may sound like a quantum leap but it was more like a no-brainer for Noche Flamenca. The key was right in the lyrics of its solid production of “Antigona”: “Let us dance and sing in the face of tragedy.” Defiance mixed with acceptance of untenable, yet unavoidable, disaster is what flamenco is all about. Sophocles’ tale of fate and heroism allowed the group, and its star Soledad Barrio, show themselves at their best.

An encore performance of a show that bowed in 2014, the current venue, the West Park Church, is small enough to set off the work well; flamenco is meant for intimate spaces. The players, wearing tragic masks, crawled out from billowing black silk, then fetched stools, arranging them in a semi-circle before introducing their mythical characters. There was some speaking in both English and Spanish, but the majority of the production’s narrative was flamenco singing, with surtitles above.

Noche Flamenca in “Antigona.” Photo © Chris Bennion

The action largely followed Sophocles’ play: battling for a crown, the sons of Orpheus killed one another outside the walls of Thebes. Creon (here Creonte), their uncle and the new king, declared one brother would be buried with full honors and rites, the other’s corpse left to rot and be scavenged. Antigone (here Antigona), their sister, defied Creonte and performed burial rites for her brother. On scorched Theban soil, she sprinkled a layer of earth and dust over him. On the arid Spanish plain via the Upper West Side, she used rose petals. The standoff over whether the law of the state or the bonds of family took precedence raced towards tragedy.

The source materials are related, so if you’ve seen Martha Graham’s “Night Journey,” it’s natural to draw connections between it and “Antigona.” There were some in how the chorus functioned, and Antigona’s suicide had echoes of Jocasta’s. More than either, it was in how Barrio and Graham, as the title character and the center of their respective troupes, held the productions together.

Barrio, like Graham, is an electric, specific presence with a defined range, but one that’s right for her medium. Her technical ability showed in the speed and rapidity of her footwork, but what set her apart was the way she held the stage. As Antigona, she was a vortex of tragic defiance, a crackling roll of stamping that galvanized the stage and hammered with the natural force of hail on a cathedral roof. When her sister tried to reason with and embrace her, Barrio threw her off with a grunt. Antigona lamented over her brother’s body, covering it with the hem of her skirt, before she was dragged away to land under Creonte’s boot.

Two singers took main roles: Manuel Gago as Creonte and Pepe ‘El Bocadillo’ as the blind seer Tiresias. Gago played Creonte as a cross between Franco and Mussolini: an egotistical demagogue with his chest puffed out like a pigeon. Behind dark glasses, El Bocadillo howled with the despair of a disaster that even sightless eyes could see. Their standoff, when Tiresias suddenly stood up and towered in height and bulk over Creonte, was one of the most surprising moments in the show.

Soledad Barrio in “Antigona.” Photo © Chris Bennion

The dancers were shown in their best lights; some were more limited than others. Barrio’s husband, Martin Santangelo, always does yeoman work in direction and staging. “Antigona” was sometimes cliché: the fight between the brothers was a dance-off. Haemon, Antigona’s betrothed, did the same sweaty stamping on every entrance. Yet more often the production hit surefooted notes. After Creonte sentenced Antigona to die, her dead brother Eteocles appeared dragging a white shroud representing Thebes’ river. Antigona hesitated in fear, gained resolve, took off her shoes and stepped in. The performance climbed to a final lament done in view of Creonte, collapsed in his chair, and Polyneice’s rotting corpse. Barrio pulled up her skirt in anguish and ripped into one last solo.

Ninety minutes went by quickly. Like a band of roving Gypsies, the glamour of “Antigona” was low-budget, but made for an evening of sure, entertaining theater. The themes of Antigone have stayed relevant for millennia; and we may have no choice but to draw new parallels today.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Antigona” – Noche Flamenca
West Park Church, New York, NY
January 12, 2017
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