By John Quinn
In “Antigone,” the 5th century BCE tragedy by Greek playwright Sophocles, the title character buries her brother Polynices, who, killed in a civil war, had been declared an enemy of the State. In choosing morality over legality, Antigone earns a death sentence. New York City, circa 1993, is a far cry from Royal Thebes, but Janusz Glowacki probes parallel themes in “Antigone in New York,” which Time magazine named one of the Ten Best Plays of that year. Here homeless, Puerto Rican-born Anita enlists the aid of two “neighbors” to snatch the body of her dead boyfriend, Pauly, before it’s consigned to an unmarked grave. Her plan is to bury it in Tompkins Square Park, where the homeless congregate – at least that way he’ll be among friends. This dark tragi-comedy transforms the Elizabeth Theater into an unpolished bite of the Big Apple.
Sarah Switanowski plays the sad, deranged Anita and, as costume designer, fleshes out the character with a total mismatch of colorful clothing. Switanowski finds both the tragedy and a child-like innocence in the coarse Anita.
The production explores Glowacki’s study in contrasts, particularly between the pair Anita entices into body snatching. Patrick Hanley’s alcoholic Russian, Sasha, is a slow, deliberate bear of a man; a natural-born painter, he is now gripped by tremors. He is the perfect foil for Joe Kvoriak’s addled, hyper-active Flea. Although the characters are thoroughly original and wonderfully performed, their absurdist plight cannot help but raise the ghost of Samuel Beckett. We inevitably ask the question: If Didi and Gogo are waiting for Godot, for whom do Sasha and Flea wait?
Patrick Loos becomes a one-man Greek chorus as a policeman, and thus a representative of order and decency. The policeman versus the homeless is Glowacki’s starkest contrast, since he is mirroring a basic theme of Sophocles – the meaning of citizenship and the mutual responsibilities between Citizen and State. Loos portrays a brash, self-assured type, confident he can define the causes of homelessness, but in the end can only offer “might over right” as a solution.
A tip of the hat is also due to the limber Greg Harris, who can be funny even while playing dead.
Director Chris Korte produces striking pictures to illustrate the plot; particularly memorable is seeing Sasha and Flea trying to sleep. With Hanley on a cramped park bench and Kvoriak on the ground beneath it, the pair resembles little boys in a bunk bed. It is also fascinating to watch Switanowski hover protectively over Anita’s shopping cart of discarded items. Small moments make for a solid, emotional whole.
Ultimately, “Antigone in New York” seeks a philosophical middle ground between the Sophoclean “For what is destined/for us, men mortal, there is no escape,” and the Shakespearian “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Glowacki provides no answers, but he is asking the right questions.
‘Antigone in New York’
The Elizabeth Theater at the Park Bar, 2040 Park Ave., Detroit. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16, 17, 23, 30, Dec. 1, 7, Jan. 5, 11 & 12, and 5 p.m. Jan. 6. $25. 313-444-2294. http://www.ParkBarDetroit.com