Arts & Life

‘Antigone: A New Trans Play’ shows the universality of Greek tragedy

Feb. 6, 2022, 7:35 p.m.

“I’m going to kill Polynices!” Antigone, played by Skye Lyles ’25, declares triumphantly in the opening scene of “Antigone: A New Trans Play” by JJ Sutton ’22. 

For audiences both familiar with and new to the original story of “Antigone,” this sudden statement comes as a shock; in the traditional play, Polynices is Antigone’s beloved brother whom she fights to bury despite Kreon’s strict interdictions. What exactly is Antigone’s relationship to Polynices in this new re-telling, and why does she need to kill him?

Antigone, born as Polynices, finally decides to take control of her identity and “kill” Polynices in Sutton’s retelling of the classic myth. However, the heroine must contend with the reactions of those around her, particularly the disdain and cruelty of her uncle Kreon, played by Tuesday Utz ’23. As Antigone finds herself haunted by a spirit of Polynices, played by Adi Garner ’23, she realizes she must contend with her own understanding of her shifting self. Antigone discovers that she must properly reconcile with her past identity in order for her present and future selves to fully exist.

Separation from and reconciliation with the past are explored through the use of a particularly powerful motif: the body. When Kreon attempts to invalidate Antigone’s transition, he purposefully asks for the production of Polynices’ body as proof that Polynices is truly dead. Kreon knows, of course, that Antigone can’t provide the body because Polynices is her past identity. And when Antigone asks her knowledgeable sister Ismene, played by Eryn Perkins ’25, for advice on the spirit currently haunting her, Ismene tells her that the only way to get peace is to give its body a proper burial.

The burial of the body thus takes on a new dimension in this re-telling of “Antigone.” In the original play, Antigone buries the separate body of Polynices; the body acts a vehicle upon which the conflicts of warring loyalties are played out. Here, however, the body is more intimately connected to the self, acting as a stand-in for a past part of her identity. 

Antigone recruits Ismene and her former lover Haemon, played by Sierra Corcoran ’25, to help. In killing off and burying her past self, Antigone must put her present body to rest — the physicality of self-reconciliation makes this retelling engrossing and captivating. 

The motif of the body also sharpens the conflict between Kreon and Antigone. Kreon claims to have authority over Antigone’s identity expression, but Antigone knows that she is the only one with ownership. The more Antigone and Kreon wrestle for control over Antigone’s self, the more explosive the consequences. The fighting culminates in Antigone’s death when Kreon pushes her body, disguised as Polynices’, off the burial platform. By attempting to restrict Antigone to the figure of Polynices — instead of allowing her to reconcile with the past and be her true self — Kreon ultimately kills Antigone in all her past, present and future.

In an interview with The Daily, playwright and director Sutton said they first came across Sophocles’ “Antigone” in the Introductory Seminar (Introsem) TAPS 12N: “To Die For: Antigone and Political Dissent.” Viewing the play from the lens of theatre, political science and classics, Sutton recognized how the variety of themes in the play allow it to be rewritten “to tell modern struggles and stories.”

“There were an abstraction of themes,” Sutton said, “such as death, burial, ritual, family, loyalty. Antigone [is] a play that can be adapted in so many ways and has been, and I decided to refocus these themes for [trans] voices and help craft an understanding in audiences for these stories.” 

The show’s casting also merits its own recognition. With a specific focus on highlighting marginalized voices, the play brings together an array of astounding actors that truly bring the retelling to life. Producer Grace Davis ’22 said that the creative team worked hard to center queer and gender-marginalized voices in its casting. 

“We had to be intentional and blunt with how we wanted to portray the show and prioritize outreach,” Davis said.

Lyles’ portrayal of Antigone displays a wide range of emotions, capturing the depth of the heroine. She embodies Antigone’s victorious exhilaration when she first resolves to kill Polynices, her heartbreak when she realizes Haemon no longer loves her as Antigone, her courage and steadfastness in facing Kreon and even her humor and lightness as she attempts to deal with the spirit of Polynices.

Utz gives an intense, electrifying performance as Kreon: bitter and stubborn, the heights of Kreon’s shouting rage only emphasize how far he must fall afterwards when his close-mindedness leads to Antigone’s death. While Utz’s performance shines in its fire and fury, Corcoran’s portrayal of Haemon comes to life in its subtle attention to detail: the awkward manner in which Haemon holds his body or the frantic darting of his eyes as he tries to say that, while he might still care for Antigone, he can’t love her anymore. 

The show, while a success, did not come without challenges, especially as a result of the ongoing COVID pandemic. The show’s run was delayed from Week 3 to Week 5 due to health guidance, and on top of that, Sutton and Davis described a gap in institutional knowledge for current undergraduates during the process of making the show. Many students involved in theatre have little to no experience in creating an in-person show at Stanford due to the previous academic year being online, posing a barrier for outreach and accessing resources. Despite these challenges, the show pushed on.

“Seeing the development of the show and the work actors and staff have put into artistic interpretations has been inspiring,” Davis said.

For Corcoran, this adaptation of “Antigone” was a piece of theatre unlike any that she has ever come across. Ancient Greek shows like this can seem “inaccessible” due to their elevated presence in the canon with characters that feel larger than life. Corcoran was surprised to find that, despite the millennia that have gone by, “old themes ring true” and the lessons from the play “match the conversations revolving around gender identity and expression in the recent years.”

Sutton brilliantly portrays some of the feelings and emotions of the queer experience by showing how Antigone’s themes transcend time. While they contend that there is “no universal queer experience” and relatability will vary, “Antigone: A New Trans Play” shines in bringing historically underrepresented stories to the forefront.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Lydia Wei '24 is an Arts and Life columnist for the Daily. She loves blackberries. Contact Lydia at lydiawei 'at' stanford.eduKyla Figueroa ‘24 is a Vol. 260 & 261 Managing Editor for The Grind and a staff writer for Arts & Life. She is a sophomore from Stockton, California studying English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. Ask her about the indie rock and pop music scene and Slaughterhouse-Five. Contact Kyla Figueroa at kfigueroa ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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