Teatro El Público’s “Antigonón, un contingente épico” (Lessy)
The Greek tragedy of “Antigone” (“Antigonón”) was written around 441 BC by playwright Sophocles and it deals with themes such as the dangers of abuse of power, family loyalty and the price of freedom of speech and expressions among the most salient. As a Cuban-American who fled communist Cuba in the late 1960s, these topics ring a familiar bell and so does the play “Antigonón, un contingente épico” by the island’s Teatro El Público, headed by artistic director Carlos Díaz, which had its premier at Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) located at the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex on Wednesday, March 15, to a sold-out audience.
As people entered the theater, a black-and-white video played on a background screen showing vintage footage of mostly Cuban historical archives going far back as 1896 as a prelude. Unfortunately for many members of the audience who did not understand Spanish, the text that accompanied the images, which could have given them more context for the live performance, was not translated.
While the performance took some inspiration and the name from the Greek original, instead of a linear narrative it developed through a series of unrelated vignettes, which were sometimes funny, sometimes sad but always outrageously presented.
The original story of Antigonón centered around the death of two brothers who fought on the opposite side of Thebes’ civil war and their two sisters who tried to retrieve the body of the one brother who fought on the wrong side of the conflict in order to give it a proper burial. To begin the performance, two male and two female actors appeared facing the audience, fully nude, as they slowly interacted with each other while silently enacting the classic storyline.
Heading the very talented, five-person cast were Gisela Calero, Daysi Forcade, Luis Manuel Alvarez, Roberto Espinosa and Linette Hernandez who were set against the minimalist, suspended screen design by Robertiko Ramos with lighting by Oscar Bastanzuri. The outrageous and creative costume design by Celia Lendon and Ramos, which were highlights of the show, helped move the narrative seamlessly while providing satirical commentary on Cuban history and culture with a big dose of gay, drag panache.
Filled with double entendres, irony and allegories, the creative and sophisticated text by Rogelio Orizondo made references to historical events and people while not necessarily mentioning them by name, such as Fidel Castro. Given the pervasive censorship by the Castro government in its almost 60-year rule, most artists living on the island developed a way to make political and social commentary by hiding it in images and “creative” text so as not to anger the government.
The multiple vignettes, done mostly in monologue format by the talented Calero and the hysterical Forcade, included the chickpea and coffee segment, which referred to the fact that up to today, the Cuban people have to mix the meager rationed coffee with chickpeas in order to stretch their consumption. Another segment referred to the sexuality and sensuality of the Cuban people, as one of the women mentioned multiple times the papaya fruit, referring to the female sexual organ, while another segment had the two women cast as young men bragging about the size of their manhood, which ended up being two water bottles stuffed in their pants.
On a more serious side, we saw the image and head the words of the late martyr, poet, writer and political thinker Jose Marti in contradiction to the current lack of liberty and democracy in Cuba. The reference of “tears being shed” by the marble statues of the great heroes of Cuban history was riveting, as well as those elements about the life and death of Antonio Maceo who was the biracial equivalent to the European Marti.
It is the ability of the Cuban people to laugh while living through the most difficult stages in Cuban history that gives “Antigonón, un contingente épico” its appeal. Even though many in the audience could not understand all the subtle references in the piece, the combination of great acting, writing, direction and visual humor gave everyone a memorable evening.