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COVID shut down this #MeToo play in L.A. How it’s staging a comeback

Madeleine Hernandez and Emma Mercier perform in "Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine's"
Madeleine Hernandez, left, and Emma Mercier portrayed student actors in Sacred Fools’ abruptly closed presentation of “Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine’s.”
(Jessica Sherman)

The first weekend in March, the Sacred Fools theater company opened a #MeToo alarm blast of a play, but the show never made it to a second weekend.

That Thursday, city leaders responded to the emerging COVID-19 crisis by urging size limits on gatherings. Los Angeles theaters, including Sacred Fools’ 96-seat venue in Hollywood, closed.

This Thursday will be happier. The West Coast premiere of “Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine’s” is returning for four days, although in different form. It is now a Zoom reading that Sacred Fools is sharing at 5 p.m. on Facebook Live with text chat. The presentation will then be available through 5 p.m. Monday on Facebook Videos.

Onstage, a riveting young cast directed by Reena Dutt zigzagged from high-spiritedness to dread as they navigated a girls’ school presentation of Sophocles’ “Antigone” — a 2,460-year-old play about bucking a repressive, misogynistic system — that ever more disturbingly mirrors what’s happening to the teenagers rehearsing it.

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The play gained a jolt of relevance this week with the death of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Seattle-area elementary school teacher whose 1990s relationship with a student scandalized the nation.

But there had been plenty of momentum in March. The Dramatists Guild of America had just named playwright Madhuri Shekar the recipient of this year’s Lanford Wilson Award for early-career writing, and her “Antigone,” first presented in 2015, had been transformed in the intervening years by people speaking out worldwide against inappropriate sexual behavior.

I was reviewing the play, designating it a Times Critic’s Choice, but the show closed before the piece could be published.

Now we all get to see “Antigone” anew. Dutt directs the original cast for the internet, with Aaron Saldana editing the recorded material. It’s the first of three presentations in what Sacred Fools is calling its “Reprise” series of shows from the last year.

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Luis Fernandez-Gil portrays the school's drama teacher, Scarlet Sheppard one of his students
Luis Fernandez-Gil portrays the school’s drama teacher, Scarlet Sheppard one of his students, in the March staging.
(Jessica Sherman)

Commissioned by Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre for its teen community program, “Antigone” unfolds in the mid-1990s among six students, ages 15 to 18, at a Catholic girls’ boarding school and their male drama teacher, in his mid-40s.

Fittingly, the Sacred Fools cast is composed largely of performers not long out of drama school.

In the live March show, Madeleine Hernandez and Jessica Ma were particularly compelling as, respectively, a quiet overachiever and a surly rebel. Although the characters are in many ways opposites, the actresses underscored how similarly they are attuned to behavioral nuances and, hence, to disturbances in their ostensibly well ordered world.

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Scarlet Sheppard, portraying the drama club president, came across as commandeering yet compassionate. And as the free-spirited 16-year-old at the story’s center, Emma Mercier exuded the breathless anticipation of a young woman at the threshold of adulthood. Jenny Griffin and Chloe Wray Gonzalez provided comic relief as gossiping best friends.

Recorded away from the theater without benefit of the production’s set or costumes, the video version must rely largely on the actors’ interaction with computer cameras in their individual locations, says Dutt.

The screen layout is essentially the Zoom checkerboard of faces. Camera-on equals an entrance, camera-off an exit. Facial expressions — and responding to others through the webcam — become especially important, Dutt explains.

The stage production’s sound design (by Dennis Peraza) — including use of ’90s music to cover scene shifts — is intact. Still photography (by Jessica Sherman) will be displayed after scenes to show what they looked like onstage.

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In Sophocles’ play, the title character is swept up in a political maelstrom when she does something out of love. A situation at the school proves not dissimilar. Onstage, Dutt effectively tightened and released the story’s tension, layering its ick factor amid steam bursts of apprehension-relieving laughter.

The girls’ drama teacher has a gift for sensing what will motivate each young actor. Onstage, Luis Fernandez-Gil imbued him with the warm sensitivity that can make a teacher beloved, combined with charisma so irresistible that it hints at trouble.

The longer the pandemic continues, the less likely Sacred Fools will be able to resume a physical production of Shekar’s play. Trying to capture at least some of the piece on video is a way “to honor those artists and the work we did,” says the company’s managing director, Padraic Duffy, and helps the organization stay connected to the public.

There’s no charge for viewing, but donations will help the company to keep moving forward. “We’re trying to not only survive as an organization, but also make sure that once we get to the other side of this that we’re not so hobbled that we can’t return to our missions,” Duffy says.

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Shekar, the 33-year-old playwright, is based in New Jersey. L.A.'s East West Players presented her “A Nice Indian Boy” in 2014, shortly after she graduated from USC’s dramatic writing program.

“Antigone” turned out to be one of three main-stage productions of her plays shut down by COVID, along with “House of Joy” at San Diego Rep and the world premiere of “Dhaba on Devon Avenue” at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. That experience devastated the postpartum new mom, but she says she’s more worried about other emerging playwrights, especially those who are not white, cisgender men.

“If the pandemic had happened in February 2014, my two professional debuts would have been lost,” she said by email. “My whole career might have been cut short, or radically redirected. ... How many brilliant careers by underrepresented artists are we losing?”

'Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine's"

Where to view: 5 p.m. Thursday on Facebook Live, then until 5 p.m. Monday on Facebook Videos
To donate: sacredfools.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Also: July 16-20 “Waiting for Waiting for Godot” and July 23-27 an as yet unannounced play

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Madeleine Hernandez and Emma Mercier as students whose friendship is tested by a harmful secret
The friendship of characters portrayed by Madeleine Hernandez, left, and Emma Mercier is tested by a harmful secret in the March presentation.
(Jessica Sherman)


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