Theaterwork’s Out of Thebes
Out of Thebes
Seven women stand onstage, surrounded by darkness. The audience hears the sound of hundreds of ravens in flight, and then, the women begin to sing. Their song isn’t made up of known words, and sounds like a mournful incantation. Dressed in dusty blue robes, each woman has a bundle that she carries as though it’s an ungainly burden. Adorned with rose petals, scraps of parchment, and raven feathers, the bundles contain stories and names, written in books, on bound scrolls, and on loose manuscripts. But the audience does not yet know this. At the beginning, the bundles are closed, and the women sing their lament.
The play is Out of Thebes, presented by Theaterwork and directed by David Olson. It is the first full-length play written by Angela Janda, a member of the company since 2004. While the play is inspired by Antigone, it would be wrong to call it an adaptation, or even a retelling. Rather, Antigone is a frame on which to hang the stories of defiant women throughout history.
Still, Antigone is central to Out of Thebes. In case you weren’t paying attention in 11th-grade English, a quick primer. The play has been adapted by dozens of writers, from Brecht to Anne Carson, but the bestknown version is Sophocles’, written around 441 BC. Antigone is one of four children of Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta. After Oedipus’ death, his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, fight for control of the city-state of Thebes, and kill each other in the process. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, is installed as king and issues an edict that Polyneices shall not be buried or receive funeral rites, which are crucial for a soul’s safe passage to the next world. Antigone defies her uncle and under cover of darkness, gives her brother the funeral rites. Antigone’s sister Ismene at first refuses to help, and later tries to accept the blame, but Antigone tells Creon she alone is responsible for her actions and that they were just. As a result, Creon has Antigone buried alive in a cave where she hangs herself. The play doesn’t end there (there are further suicides, attempted murder, and curses), but its essential moment, and the one that most inspires Out of Thebes, is Antigone’s steadfast, fatal resistance.
“When I started writing, I asked myself, ‘Why is this story still relevant, and what can I bring to it that hasn’t already been said?’ ” Janda said after a recent rehearsal. “We’re still telling this story because it’s powerful and important, and because these singular acts, like Antigone’s, are still with us.”
The women in the play (they’re called “the Phoenician Women”) have dual roles: They function together as a chorus, often singing or speaking different lines simultaneously, occasionally to the point of incomprehension. They also have individual roles that emerge during the play’s four “ceremonies.” Janda is a member of the chorus; she also portrays Antigone. In fact, the idea to reinterpret the play came during Theaterwork’s 2011 staging of Jean Anouilh’s 1944 version of Antigone in an abandoned city swimming pool. (Janda portrayed Antigone in that production, too.) While rehearsing and performing Antigone, Janda wrote a book of poems, Small Rooms With Gods, and many lines of dialogue in Out of Thebes are lifted directly from her verses.
During the four ceremonies, different women are invoked. Antigone, Ismene, and Jocasta share the stage with real people, some of them familiar (like journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells), others less so, like Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer. We crisscross history, visiting Versailles circa the French Revolution; a U.S. interrogation camp during the early years of the Iraq War; and Tahrir Square at the dawn of the Arab Spring. The historical references are numerous and can be obscure; many are liable to fly over the viewers’ heads, particularly without an intermission during which to consult Google. But Janda isn’t overly concerned with the audience perhaps not knowing who Lephina Zondo or Maxima Acuña de Chaupe are. (Zondo testified during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Acuña is an indigenous Peruvian environmental and social activist.)
“Of course, the more background knowledge you have, the better,” Janda said. “But I hope the play is felt as much as it’s understood.” Her castmate Catherine Donavon, who portrays a chorus member and Jocasta,
added that she hopes audience members seek further information about the women in the play.
Out of Thebes explores the tension between what is fated and prophesied and what is a choice. Janda uses repeated phrases, recited over and over, like prayers (one is “You can imagine the state the state was in”), which contribute to a fatalistic mood, compounded by the fact that we know how Sophocles’ Antigone ends. But Janda also reminds the audience throughout that there are many versions of Antigone, and she does not die in all of them.
Antigone does die in Janda’s version, but her death is on a continuum of resistance and part of a tradition of women who do not accept the status quo. Near the end of the play, one of the chorus members puts it thus: “Some are dead, some are alive, some are alive in exile, some lived in another century, some are in prison, some are still missing, some are old. Fire in the heart or no — all of those now alive will die/Unlike the gods, we humans are not above dying./And yet, three things remain:/ One, the story. Two, the chorus. Three, hope./Hope, the curl of light on the lip of the earth at daybreak.” ◀