Current Issue, Volume 1

Tales from the Dead. Miyagi’s Antigone at the Armory

Every semester I delight in showing my large Introduction to Theatre class at Hunter College a range of images drawn from innumerable productions of Sophocles’ Antigone. It is a quick and relatively reliable way of bringing home to first-time theatregoers the fact that a play, though relatively fixed in its text, can continue to be adapted and readapted, constantly morphing in response to different directors’ visions and to the theatre’s imperative to speak to its audiences in relation to their changing circumstances and interests. Even within the wide range of examples from what is surely one of the most produced plays of all time, Miyagi’s staging of Antigone at the Park Avenue Armory stands out as a forceful and highly unique conception. Because of the power conflict at the center of the play — between Creon, ruler of Thebes, trying to maintain order after a brutal war, and his passionate niece Antigone, committed to seeing both her brothers buried despite her uncle’s decree that the body of one, deemed a traitor, be left exposed to the elements — directors have mined the play for its political resonances. Although Antigone’s cause is her commitment to following the laws of the gods, her feisty spirit and willingness to speak truth to power no matter the consequences, cast her as a model for taking action against authoritarian rule. Miyagi ,however, takes the play in the exact opposite direction, setting aside the heated political drama, and staging Antigone instead as a ritual enacted by spirits of the deceased from a Japanese Buddhist afterlife. In an interview published in the production program, Miyagi states,

If you consider earthly power, for example military, economic or political power, from a relative point of view — to say it very directly: to look at the world through the eyes of the dead – one sees that the prosperity and riches of the world we live in are devoid of value. So if you take current conflicts such as war, or someone taking great pride in their wealth and look at these through the eyes of the dead, they appear as utterly meaningless things that make no difference. This is perhaps the most important message of the play.

Miyagi sets himself the task, then, of directing Antigone from the point of view that the battle of egos seemingly at its center is meaningless. Instead of a political struggle, his production is a poetic ritual where image, sound, and movement take precedence over psychological character.

In Junepei Kiz’s space design, nearly the entirety of the stage floor is covered by a pool of shallow water that represents the realm of the afterlife. Several large rock formations burst forth from this watery stage. As audience members enter, actors in white are already walking slowly, meditatively through the water, each holding a light in a glass orb. In the first subsequent piece of action, a small troupe of lively performers, also in white, enter from stage left, walking along the border of the pool, playing loud drums and flutes in a kind of Japanese folk musical style. They stop center stage to speak directly to the audience and remind us, in a joyful way, using exaggerated comic gestures, of the well-known plot points of the 2500-year-old tragic drama that is about to unfold. Satisfied that we are ready to follow the story, they continue musically processing across the stage and then, one by one, step slowly and carefully into the watery pool, the other world, inhabited by spirits. The raucous atmosphere drastically shifts as a dense silence reigns, except for the light whooshing sounds of water lapping against moving feet. Here language is only one element in a rich, precisely orchestrated soundscape that judiciously coordinates silence, the varying sounds of alternately calm and loud splashing water, alongside energetic music composed by Hiroko Tanakawa for a variety of drums, gongs, bells, flutes and other instruments set along the back of the water pool. These are played by the actors who take turns alighting form the water to become members of the musical ensemble, until all perform together in a vigorous crescendo of a finale.

Water is a significant central player in Miyagi’s drama, both physically, for its sound and movement, and metaphorically. The director has split up action and dialogue such that each character is simultaneously presented by two performers, one offering language and the other physicalization of persona and action. All the players come from a single ensemble at the beginning, the physicalizing actors don their characters by taking on wigs and props offered to them by a Buddhist monk who paddles through the water in a boat before the main storyline is set in motion. The speaking actors wade through the water, and kneel in it statuesquely to deliver their lines. By contrast, those physicalizing the characters leap from rock to rock, sit or stand atop the rock surfaces, or clamber around the rock faces, striving to stay clear of the watery depths. Clinging to the rocks concretely expresses the metaphorical struggle to stay alive in this realm that, like all life, is bordered by the ever-present reality of eventual death. As Miyagi states, again in the program interview,

The idea that there is water between the land of the living and the dead is an image shared by both Japan and Ancient Greece … If this is how we view the boundary between life and death then we are really seeing something ever-changing. In one moment someone could see themselves as of the living and standing beside someone who is dead, but in another moment perhaps they have crossed over and lost any division from the dead. In this way, for a living person the distinction between who is alive and who is dead becomes ambiguous…Antigone was going through life with this feeling, so she was not particularly afraid of going to the land of the dead.

Miyagi’s staging concretizes this idea, offering an interpretation of the play in which death is not a tragic, final consequence of problematic action or fate, but a constant, visibly present, watery realm from which living beings intermittently emerge to enact their dramas, and then return.

Shadows can also serve as a metaphor for other worldly domains and, through Koji Osako’s lighting, they play an important role here as well. In the Armory’s notoriously cavernous space, lights project the shadows of the actors from down below into huge dark formations on the back wall. The true power of the prophet Tiresias, a small straggly figure even atop his rock, is revealed in the massive shadow that looms behind him as he warns Creon about the foreboding portents he has seen and the power of the gods. In another effective moment, Antigone, ostensibly locked in the cave that will be her grave, sits atop the large flat center rock. Her fiancé, Haemon, his argument to his father Creon to save Antigone having fallen on deaf ears, lies atop another rock stage right, far from his love. The two fated lovers reach their arms out towards each other. Although separated in physical space, their souls seem to meet in death as the shadows of their hands overlap to show them clasping each other in their final moments.

As the great drama builds to its climax, the ensemble members line up and perform a bon odori, a dance done annually in Japan during the Buddhist Obon festival to welcome and celebrate the spirits of the ancestors. Here it takes on a more solemn and formal tone than the more festive one it tends to have in summer village festivals throughout Japan. As the piece ends, the monk returning to collect the costumes and prop elements that transformed ensemble members into characters, sets lights candles into the water, another action taken from the Obon festival and meant to light the ancestors’ journey back to the spirit realm. In Miyagi’s interpretation, the action of Antigone, like the Obon festival, opens up a momentary bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead and allows spectators the opportunity to contemplate the heated momentary passions of life from the perspective of the eternal afterlife.

Antigone by Sophocles, Translated by Shigetake Yaginuma directed by Satoshi Miyagi with music by Hiroko Tanakawa, space design by Junepei Kiz, costume design by Kayo Takahashi, lighting design by Koji Osako, and hair and makeup by Kyoko Kajita, a production of Shizuoka Performing Arts Center, adapted by Park Avenue Armory and presented in collaboration with The Japan Foundation, Fall 2019.

About The Author

Claudia Orenstein is Professor of Theatre at Hunter College, CUNY. Her areas of specialty include Asian theatre and puppetry. She is co-editor of the anthologies The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance and Women and Puppetry: Critical and Historical Investigations; and working on a new co-edited anthology, The Puppet and the Spirit. 

Puppetry International Research Review, Volume 1 (Fall 2022)

Puppetry International Research Review (PIR Review) is the world’s first and only global, interdisciplinary academic journal in English dedicated solely to puppetry and the allied areas of masks, performing objects, and material performance. Its mission is to foster scholarship on puppet theatre and related arts as practised in the past and present around the world and deepen historical and theoretical understanding of the field. Empirical and theoretical peer-reviewed articles, as well as critical book and performance reviews, will strengthen puppetry studies as an academic discipline. The journal welcomes submissions from scholars and reflective practitioners from all related disciplines. 

A project of UNIMA-USA, published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center CUNY, New York.

Editorial Board:

Founder and Lead Editor: Claudia Orenstein

Hunter College, CUNY, New York)

Published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center CUNY, New York.

The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center. 365 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10016

©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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