The fabulously theatrical set for Rep Stage’s Antigone Project: A Play in 5 Parts is so overwhelming you might not realize for a time that the play itself belongs to a more recent tradition — the academic art-drama. Its inspiration seems to have come more from a grants committee than from one of the classic muses.
Five contemporary female playwrights, including Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and OBIE Award winner Caridad Svich, were each invited to contribute a short scene touching on the classic tragedy of Antigone. (One can almost hear the scoffing echo of Oscar Levant: “That’ll leave ’em laughing.”)
It’s fitting that the first of these 10- to 15-minute sketches — Karen Hartman’s “Hang Ten” — involves two sisters on a beach in 2016 watching some surfer-boys in action. All five playwrights will metaphorically be paddling out with their surfboards in the hope of catching waves left by Sophocles.
This 2004 anthology flows freely from one episode to the next without gathering much steam. But what the new production at Howard Community College does brilliantly is to use its set as a unifying element. In the vision of Director Joseph W. Ritsch, the entire set becomes a sort of animated Greek chorus to comment on the proceedings.
Scenic Designer James Fouchard, a true treasure in modern theater, has placed a 20-foot tall suggestion of a ruin inside the intimate “black box” Studio Theatre at HCC. In such close quarters it not only dwarfs playgoers, it confronts us with the play’s central conundrum: Are we seeing stone pillars dating from antiquity or the bombed-out remains of a modern city?
At times throughout the evening you will no doubt see both. Meanwhile, Director Ritsch asks Projection Designer Sarah Tundermann to send text messages crawling along the upright beams or to turn the chain-mail backdrop into everything from a galaxy of stars to the giant faces of tormented accusers.
Lighting Designer Joseph R. Walls at one point suggests the exploding flashbulbs of newsbreaking events, and Sound Designer William K. D’Eugenio contributes greatly to the small universe of changing environments.
Of the five vignettes, Nottage’s “A Stone’s Throw” offers the most warmly human moments, thanks to the flirtatious charisma between Shannon L. Graham and Daniel Ayoola. Katie Hileman lends her welcome light touch to the less tortured Antigones we meet.
Jonathan Feuer and Kelly Renee Armstrong excel as a variety of grieving relations, lecturers and officers. But their best moments may come in the Underworld envisioned by Chiori Miyagawa in “Red Again.” Here a postmodern Antigone and the doomed “Harold” find hope for man’s future in a stash of unwritten books.
There’s much to cherish in the stagecraft and acting this time out at Rep Stage. But in the end I was left with more questions than answers. If you love the art of theater, you should go, but brush up on your Sophocles before you do.
Running Time: About 70 minutes, with no intermission.
Antigone Project: A Play in 5 Parts by Rep Stage plays through March 6, 2016 at Rep Stage performing in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.