Jean Anouilh wrote his "Antigone" in 1944, during the height of the Nazi occupation of France. His interpretation of Sophocles' Greek tragedy soon became a symbol for the underground--freedom fighters saw the heroine's defiance as a rebel-yell to patriotism.
Ironically, many Nazis also embraced "Antigone," primarily because of the classical source. While German censors suppressed any new works that even hinted of anti-Fascism, "Antigone" slipped by as a relatively safe retelling of an ancient tale.
Anouilh, and his audience, were obviously shrewder than their keepers. "Antigone" is now seen as one of the more enduring metaphors for the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy regime.
Yet despite its historical mantle, "Antigone" doesn't often find a stage--not in New York, not in Los Angeles, and certainly not in Orange County. Until now. The Alternative Repertory Theatre, known for searching out the obscure and rarely produced, opens its version of "Antigone" tonight in Santa Ana.
"Anouilh isn't as well-remembered as (his contemporaries) Beckett or Sartre, or staged as much, and that's a shame," said director Joel Cotter. "One reason is that it isn't light or easy subject matter. It challenges the audience, and that has value.
"Of course, it fits in with ART. We like to take a piece, whether it's remembered or not, and put it in a different setting so that, hopefully, people can relate."
Cotter went in knowing the play's dangers. In explaining why "Antigone" doesn't find much modern life, critics describe the piece as a product of its time, not just historically but philosophically. Its existential underpinnings reflect the prevailing thought of Anouilh's generation, and his approach, especially in the dialogue, may be too stilted or diagrammatic for today.
In rejecting those notions, Cotter explained that the essential message of "Antigone" is as relevant now as at any other time. Antigone, who refuses to compromise her spiritual and moral beliefs, is a powerful symbol for any modern hero, whether famous or obscure, he said.
"This type of thing happens every day, where any kind of repression tests us," Cotter said. "In Yugoslavia, China, South Africa, people die for their beliefs; they feel as strongly as Antigone does.
"I think people (who go to the theater) listen to situations like that. It's courageous and dramatic and real."
Still, Cotter added that he's aware the message may not be enough to overcome the play's heaviness. To generate more accessibility, ART has staged "Antigone" as a rehearsal where the audience, in a supposedly more intimate setting, gets to see a final run-through "about a week before opening night."
The audience will first find the cast preparing by "doing vocal warm-ups, becoming acquainted with their costumes or props." Then an actor posing as the stage manager tells them to start. Besides intermission, the production continues without any interruptions.
"This way we create an intimate feeling, sort of a framing sequence that invites the audience in," Cotter said. "Hopefully, this takes away a little of that stilted quality, when the script is detached and fairly objective. I've also asked the cast to contemporize the dialogue, make it more conversational, as a way to break down the wall."
On an even more practical level, Cotter believes his approach literally fits in ART's tiny, theater-in-the-round space. "'Antigone,' with all its philosophical ramifications, is grand, palatial, and reeks of the proscenium. This was a good way to bring it down to size."
As for the handling of the characters, Cotter said he was true to Anouilh's original desire to give Antigone and her uncle, King Creon of Thebes, more equal billing than in Sophocles. In the original Greek tragedy, Antigone is placed on an heroic altar as she defies Creon and buries her brother, Polynices. But Anouilh makes a case for the rationality of Creon's political pragmatism.
"The tragic element of Antigone has be be emphasized, but Creon isn't always the villain--both of them are protagonists," Cotter said. "In some ways, I feel it's Creon's play. We're suppose to feel bad about what he's done (to Antigone), but we're also suppose to feel bad about (what the tragedy) has done to him." * The Alternative Repertory Theatre's production of Jean Anouilh's "Antigone" opens tonightat 8 p.m. at 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. through Nov. 14. $13.50 and $16. (714) 836-7929.