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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Universal Truths

Classical Review

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PresentMusic collaborated with Milwaukee Dance Theatre in performances last Thursday through Sunday at the Off-Broadway Theatre, featuring a streamlined production of Antigone. Rather than an adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy, this was a new version with a script by Milwaukee Dance Theatre artistic directors Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson, and incidental music by Eric Segnitz, Greek tragedy is notoriously tricky stuff. Contemporary audiences are not as educated in Greek myth as were educated classes of previous eras. But beyond that, staring back into legendary times and finding relevant ways of presenting the profound universal truths of these dramas is downright intimidating.

MDT took a straightforward approach, paring the story to essentials presented by five actors. While primarily a spoken play, there were occasional, brief dances. The playwrights attempted to condense all the complex story of Oedipus and related events, which take place before Antigone, in a condensed preface that was tediously didactic. It would have been better left to a program note.

The structural device of a casual town hall spokesman was used, framing the public responsibility issues of the drama. Ultimately, I found this version of the story and its performance rather unengaging, not pointed enough to make its point. Segnitz’s score, for string quartet and percussion, was the most interesting part of the production; at times it felt like long stretches between music. Primarily atmospheric, it would not likely hold up on its own in an independent performance, but it kept me listening, especially wondering what inventive percussion instrument would be next.

The evening began with a familiar icon of contemporary chamber music repertory, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, for string quartet and recording, played with precision and panache by the ensemble. It contrasts the composer’s childhood train trips of 1939-42 with those of unfortunate European Jewish children headed to prison camps. It was interesting to hear it in this small space, so close to the instruments, which highlighted the contrast between live and recorded instruments.

I was keenly aware that this piece from 1988, which once felt so current, has now become a period piece from a clearly defined time and aesthetic.