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Latin American Fashion

The Passion of Antigona Perez Directed by Vicente Castro at the Loeb Drama Center, March 9-12

By Christine Healey

"tHE RIGHT JEANS. the right shirt. all it takes is know-how. we know how!" Bloomingdale's Department Store sells $22 "lady-like" shirts with this ad copy in The New York Times. A Bloomingdale woman dominates half a page, stepping delicately towards us. She has not a care in the world; she wears her clothes with elegant nonchalance. Obviously, this woman, smiling irrepressibly, knows the right jeans, the right shirt. What she does not know, or does not care to know, is that she is strangling the German shepherd puppy leashed beside her. The dog would be howling if it had the freedom to breathe. Yet the woman looks handsome, respectable, prosperous; she seems to be without worries or obligations. Her portion of the page is in order and under control.

The news column that fills the rest of the page is chaotic in contrast. Not only is it riddled with typos, but it tells a story that one wants to believe is fantasy. Catholic clerics accuse the Nicaraguan government of systematically executing civilians, raping women, torturing prisoners, bombing villages. Eighty-six civilians are reported dead, 29 of them children. The story is excessively detailed and poorly structured, as if there is no order to be made out of routine terror or "normal" repression. Graphically, page nine of last Wednesday's New York Times shocks. How can so much energy and space be invested in the appearance of prosperity, the conceit of control? Why do we look at respectable nonchalance, and refuse to see ladylike strangulation, life and death in small print?

The Passion of Antigona Perez at the Loeb Mainstage is like that New York Times page. Written in 1966, it is set in Molina, a fictional Latin American country not unlike Nicaragua. The events it describes, which we want to believe are fantasy, are occuring. Antigona Perez, conscious of her namesake the Greek Antigone, has buried two brothers in defiance of the laws of the State. The dictator, Creon Molina, who claims to personify the "will of the people," is desperate to have Antigona confess. He realizes that if she does not relent, he is bound to execute her and, by doing so, is bound to create a martyr, a rallying point for the forces that might topple him. Creon sends Antigona's mother, priest and friend to her prison cell. They pressure her to act more ladylike, to resume her privileged position ("We were prosperous, respectable," her mother says) and to confess--if only for the sake of her life. Yet Antigona persists. Although at its periphery often excessive and out of control, the production has emotional intensity at its core. What kind of know-how is needed to maintain the dignity of one's spirit despite fears for one's body? How can one assert what is right even as one is leashed and suffocating?

THE PLAY OPENS as Generalissimo Molina, starkly spotlighted, dresses in silence. Surrounded by anonymous guards, David Eddy as Creon pushes on his gloves with determination and certain cruelty. Here is a man who maintains himself through symbolic actions, the trappings of office. He places his sunglasses. The effect is complete. Unimposing physically, Eddy cannot assert his power through physical presence. Yet, although he does not have the hulking build of a mythic dictator, he is awesome. Eddy has the authority to say and mean, "The Generalissimo is still the Generalissimo. The stairs are still the stairs. The prisoners are still the prisoners." Nuances in the text have probably been lost through translation from the original Spanish--but Eddy restores them. He simultaneously manages to assert his power and suggest his vulnerability. In his struggle with Antigona, his voice assumes the paternalism of an absolute leader, the cruelty of a tyrant and the impersonality of one that has been broadcast throughout the land.

There are other broadcast voices in the play. Reporters for the censored press, dressed all in yellow, along with a muttering anonymous crowd, dressed all in black, compose what is analogous to the chorus of the Greek tragedy. (The journalists also wear sunglasses. It is a bitterly appropriate effect that these "reporters" should have their vision blocked by dark glasses.) With voices reminiscent of CBS Evening News, the journalists mouth the distortions and fabrications Creon has fed them. They are the ones, Antigona says, who make it inevitable that there be "two versions of the truth: mine and theirs. Mine is simple enough."

But, of course, Antigona and her truth are not simple. Shorn of finery and barefoot, Cornelia Ravenal as Antigona has a difficult role. She not only enacts a scene but also steps outside the action to comment upon it. Ravenal is at her best when she is being a "witness to her times." She colors her idealism with a matter-of-fact sarcasm that does not diminish her goodness. Ravenal is tough and human; her lines could be rhetorical harangues but she delivers them with unaffected directness. Confronting other characters, Ravenal is less effective. At times her passionate responses to her mother and friend seem overly dramatic--mainly because the visitors offer little to respond to.

Susan Chira, as Antigona's mother, has the most difficulty. She gives a performance that undoubtedly is heartfelt but unconvincing even to herself. Director Vicente Castro could have helped by providing her with a chair so she could sit rather than gesture lamely in pantomime while Antigona speaks to the audience. A chair might have provided action in a long and static scene. Cynthia Wondowlowski also lacks color as Antigona's friend Irene. For a woman who once braved the state and who now betrays her friend, there is too little rancor, fire, or even ashes.

By contrast, Kevin Grumbach's performance as Monsignor Escudero has many more dimensions, but it is confusing. He is the typical Catholic priest making gentle jests over his supposed sinfulness, the suspicious courtier "educated in the most select European intrigues" and the imperious confessor; but he does not seem to be one man.

Mira Nair as Creon's wife Pilar also gives Antigona plenty to react to. Vain, evil and ambitious, Nair survives what must be poorly translated lines with the proper doses of viper and Eva Peron.

ALTHOUGH ANTIGONA can be identified as all good and completely human, there is no catharsis in The Passion of Antigona Perez. This absence is partially the result of technical flaws. The lines are not memorable; the staging is mishandled. In the prison cell, Creon paces to within a foot of Antigona, who is squatting in defiance. It is unlikely that a man in Creon's position would not have kicked her. Further: the crowd shuffles around forgettably and the yellow journalists fling themselves across stage in a clumsy flock. Their flutter emphasizes the parody but dissipates the tension.

Yet even ignoring the shortcomings of the production, catharsis cannot occur in the show. Unlike Sophocles's creation, Antigona is not denying societal obligations to hold supreme her familial responsibilities. The Greek Antigone refused to acknowledge that there might be political consequences to her actions. The Latin American Antigona makes a political statement. Antigone acts in disregard of the state; Antigona acts to change it. Calling Creon by his name and not his title, she refuses to admit that the State might be embodied in one man rather than in the relationship between men. Antigona insists on fighting fear, the "putrid peace," and refuses to accept as consolation what her visitors wrongly call love. Recognizing what is chaotic and what is right, she will not settle for the companionship of cowards, the appearance of prosperity, or the preservation of her life.

I almost cried when the journalists announced Antigona's death. First one reported the local news: "The criminal Antigona Perez...finally kept her date with the law." Then another reported on the international scene: "The famous designer Pierre Cardin has announced he will begin a new line of men's fashions." It would have been useless to cry. I could not have been purged. The ending confronts us too constantly--even on page nine of The New York Times.

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