Before the production officially begins and without uttering a single word, Gini Atwell effectively sets the tone for the Prenzie Players' Antigone. On Friday evening, during the ad-libbed pre-show that's a staple of Prenzie productions, Atwell sat at the front of the stage, half-cradling her knees while wearing a far-off look in her eyes and a deep sadness on her face, as though lost in thought on woeful memories or circumstances.
Not long after the play begins, it's made clear that Atwell's expression is due to her character's resignation to her own death. She is passionate during the course of the play - particularly as she attempts to garner her sister's help in burying their brother (who lost his life in battle with their other brother for the throne of Thebes), and as she embraces her fiancé as if it's the last time they'll ever hold each other. But her ability to maintain the cheerlessness at the core of her Antigone is remarkable, creating a palpable pain that's punctuated by her inevitable death.
Directed by Catie Osborn from a mid-20th Century French modernization of Sophocles' Greek tragedy, Antigone centers on the title character's desire to properly bury her brother against the orders of Creon, the current ruler of Thebes. Antigone makes multiple attempts to honor her fallen brother despite facing death for doing so.
The update - by playwright Jean Anouilh and translator Jeremy Sam - is notable for its exploration of fate without the intervention of a higher power. Yet Sam's translation is especially eloquent, with stirringly poetic lines ("I'm here to say 'no' to you and die") and bits of wit and humor; when Andy Koski's First Guard blathers on about how little guards are paid compared to sergeants, Antigone interrupts him to say, with utter bafflement at his nonchalance, "I'm going to die soon."
Osborn sets the ancient actions in a modern environment, for example positioning Jake Walker's stern Creon as what seems to be a business executive rather than a king. Dressed by costume designers Kate Farence and Osborn in a cream-colored suit with a grayish-blue shirt and tie, Creon sits at a wooden table turned so it juts straight out from the leader's leather executive chair. For his part, Walker maintains a focused, serious tone as Creon but impresses with an evident softening in grief for what befalls him for defying the gods. There's also a moment when Creon forces Antigone to her knees in a display of power, threatening to punch her - an action that clearly conveys the core of his character.
Aaron E. Sullivan deserves high praise for his portrayal of the play's one-man Chorus. Speaking with empathy as he talks about Antigone's plight, Sullivan addresses the audience as if we know each other - sharing a sad story he thinks is important for us to hear, with a notable familiarity that's sincere and moving. In contrast, Dee Canfield's Nurse possesses a proper nature that's much more aloof, with a disciplinary tone in much of her delivery as she chides Antigone for sneaking off at night.
Playing Antigone's sister, Abby VanGerpen's virginal beauty lends itself well to Ismene's described attractiveness, but she shades the character - wearing a draped gown in a flowingly light material reminiscent of a toga - with a touch of meanness and a hint of arrogance. William Scott Bray uses a bit too much effort to feign Haemon's emotions, with slow, calculated speech and somewhat exaggerated diction. However, his pain feels real when Haemon is told of his fiancée's fate, with Bray holding nothing back while wailing and collapsing to the floor. Nine-year-old Brody Ford is worth mentioning for the singular focus he brings to the Page, ever at Creon's side except when leaving to carry out the ruler's bidding.
At roughly 100 minutes without intermission, the Prenzie Players' Antigone is packed with stirring anguish, adeptly conveyed by Osborn's cast. However, it's also brief enough to prevent the grief from becoming overwhelming.
Antigone continues through March 30 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Quad City Theatre Workshop (1730 Wilkes Avenue in Davenport). For more information and tickets, call (309)278-8426 or visit PrenziePlayers.com.