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February 16, 2007

UT workshops offer a fresh look at lamentation

Both of the workshop shows at UT this week confront the audience with provocative ideas about human suffering and the ways people think and feel in situations that are out of their control or comprehension. The shows, A One-Hour Cutting of Antigone, written by Jean Anouilh and directed by Margaret Lebron, and The No Way Home, adapted and directed by Griffin Sharps, choose different ways to present characters stripped of all but the deepest and most fundamental emotions.

The first of the two pieces, The No Way Home, is a dramatic adaptation of some of the lyrics of Tom Waits alternated with segments of actual Tom Waits songs. The piece uses three characters to create a sort of collage of the sentiment behind Waits’s lyricism. The intensity of the music is mirrored by the intensity of the characters that Sharps and the actors created.

The characters, two young soldiers and one washed-up bum, interact in scenes that focus on situations of great suffering that seem impossible to overcome. The narrative does not necessarily remain consistent from scene to scene, but the characters do, and they highlight the most painful aspect of Waits’s music and lyrics with their repeated tribulations. Strong acting makes their tragic roles both gripping and disturbing, as the characters seem to waver back and forth across their breaking points, dealing with the limits of trauma and pain.

The staging is such that the characters seem to be confronting the audience directly with their pain, making it impossible to forget or ignore. They stand downstage, looking directly into the seats, reciting lines of terrible misfortune with wide eyes and pained expressions.

“I want the audience to experience an emotional connection with men that they usually wouldn’t,” Sharps said.

A One-Hour Cutting of Antigone also confronts the audience with intense characters. It challenges the audience directly by using a narrator, and the sparse set and props leave little between the audience and the emotional tragedy being played out on stage. It is not simply an abridged version of the original play, but a play that twists the characters and plot of the original in a way that causes the ordeal to be seen in a different light.

“I love the way it complicates a traditional story and makes the audience question long-held assumptions of what or who is right or wrong,” director Margaret Lebron said. “I also felt that it would lend itself well to a more abstracted manner of staging.”

One interesting facet of that abstracted manner of staging is the use of a red cloth as the only prop in the show. At different times in the play, the cloth becomes a burial veil draped over a dead body, a symbol of death wrapped around the necks of the characters, and a comforting shawl hugging Antigone’s shoulders. The set is also very minimal, formed only by stage cubes that are arranged and rearranged into funeral pyres and prison chairs.

Both shows are concerned with storytelling and how a story can change, benefit from, or be intensified by the retelling. A One-Hour Cutting of Antigone takes a well known story that seems straightforward and questions all of the assumptions normally made about its characters. It also features several stories within the story, which are underlined by the actors assembling as a second audience for the storyteller, causing the members of the broader audience to question their own roles. The No Way Home dramatizes a story normally told in song and attaches characters to already powerful lyrics, solidifying a very specific interpretation.

The workshops, together titled Lost and Found, are showing through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Reynolds Club First Floor Theater.

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