SALT LAKE CITY — As a theatre artist, one of the things that is most exciting to see is to see a blank stage. A blank space is a like a new day — it’s open to any kind of possibility, any range of story or action or happening. Kevin Myhre’s starkly simple set design for Too Much Memory at the Salt Lake Acting Company was no exception. For most of the play, the stage is literally blank, empty except for a few scattered chairs and cushions, and a few painted flats far upstage. While the audience was filtering in, the main square of playing space was being measured out, its edges outlined in orange spike tape. Cast members warmed up within view of the audience, chatting with each other and preparing for the show. Once the lights shifted and the performance began, all of the actors were within sight, even if they were not directly on stage: they all stood or sat just beyond the borders of the playing space. It was an instance of theatricality that told me that I was privileged; that I was about to witness something being created.
Too Much Memory is described as “an adaptation of an adaptation of a translation” of Sophocles’ classic tragedy Antigone. Director Meg Gibson (who co-wrote the play with Keith Reddin) keeps the action of the play taut and muscular; the familiar events happen at a brisk pace. There are moments when I wondered if things weren’t happening too fast (the entire play lasts just about seventy minutes) but the pace seems to be very much a part of how things are supposed to be. That the media, ubiquitous and supposedly hungry for truth, alters our sense of time and reality. Do the events of the play take place over several weeks, days, or mere hours? In this case, does it matter? I was reminded of Sophie Scholl, a young woman who spoke out against the Nazi regime only to be tried and executed for treason, all within a span of days. Like Sophie, Antigone wants to be heard, but her cries are hushed by the autocratic machine of her Uncle Creon’s government. Because things are happening so fast, everything is intense. This isn’t a weakness, not in the slightest; however, sometimes that intensity was overtaken by volume, and I could have done with a few more moments of quiet ferocity, particularly because such an intimate space invites it.
The play begins with an introduction to the cast by the Chorus (Lane Richins) a definite homage to the original Greek style. At first, I felt the Chorus’s asides were out of place; despite their “Greek-ness” the attempt to be conversational and familiar didn’t quite ring true. Richins is very open and affable in his performance; he speaks to the audience in modern English, going as far as to make references to Salt Lake City geography and the Book of Mormon. However, when we get to the scenes — the first being a fervent argument between Antigone and her sister Ismene — the characters speak with a heightened, almost poetic syntax. I knew right away that when Antigone spoke, I wanted to listen because she spoke eloquently, and with reasonable power. Despite Richins’ fine performance, I struggled with the necessity of the Chorus; he felt tacked on, trying to give a modern spin on a story that didn’t need a narrator and already had plenty of spin. I did enjoy his frankness concerning the play’s inevitable tragedy. Also, there is a late moment in the play, near to the climax, when the Chorus is suddenly sheathed in blue light and speaks, almost trancelike, in the same poetic language as the rest of the cast. It clicked for me, as if he was suddenly struck by the gravity of Antigone’s situation. While I can appreciate the attempt to bring the play not only to a contemporary time but directly to Salt Lake, I wished that same gravity could have been evident in the narration earlier on.
Antigone (Nicki Nixon) is in a spot of trouble. She has willfully broken a law that her Uncle Creon (Morgan Lund) has put in place: her dead brother, Polynieces, is a traitor and as such should have no proper burial. Antigone, under cover of night, goes to her brother’s body and covers him with handfuls of dirt. It’s an act not only of familial love and duty, but of protest against the war that killed him. Despite the advice of her older sister Ismene (Stefanie Londino) and her fiancé Haemon (Austin Archer) Antigone feels strongly that she is in the right and revisits her brother’s body a second time, only to be apprehended. What follows then is an intense tug-of-war between public and private, uncle and niece, politician and protester.
As Creon, Lund is by turns fatherly and tyrannical; his rich, full voice both warms and warns. Creon is not comfortable as the villain, though he acknowledges it as his role in things. He wants peace, and he wants his son Haemon to be happy; he knows the latter hinges on Antigone. At the same time, Nixon, making her SLAC debut as Antigone, is young but not naïve. Her choices are very calculated; is she burying her brother for his sake, or to make a charged political statement? I like the idea of Antigone as a schemer rather than a whiner, and Nixon stands up to Lund with tenacity, planting her feet and stating a cause rather than taking the easy road and playing petulance. Nixon’s performance is an intriguing mix of innocence and cleverness; she is definitely not a spoiled princess looking for something to do. One of the play’s most powerful scenes comes when Antigone learns of the manner of her impending death from soft-hearted soldier Jones (a charmingly awkward and relatable Justin Ivie), and the full weight of her actions breaks through the veneer of her partisan agenda. While I admired Antigone the martyr, I wanted to hug and comfort Antigone the child; I wanted to stand up and protect her somehow, though I knew I could not. The scene made my 33-year-old self feel old, inert, and helpless, which is, I think, the point. Well done.
Another memorable performance — and this production has many — was that of Teri Cowan as Creon’s wife Eurydice. She appears in only one scene, but she makes the most of it, giving Creon an earful about the way he is handling the Antigone situation. Eurydice’s break from her supposed silence is a welcome theatrical shift — we see the Chorus and other cast members react “offstage” with surprise. Cowan is regal in first lady purple, reminding her husband of all she has done to support him in his position of power, simultaneously reminding the audience that politicians — and their wives — are human beings, after all.
There are some lovely instances of theatricality within the play. One of the most effective is a love scene between Antigone and Haemon that results in their drawing a chalk outline of a body in the middle of the stage, that remains for the rest of the play. It could have any number of meanings — the lovers being one; the figure of Antigone’s slaughtered brother; the difficult position of the government — and that’s why its constant presence is so powerful. When that chalk outline is somewhat impassively washed away — when we as an audience are told to return to our world of actual lovers and murders and governments and realize that we are indeed inundated with too many ways to remember too many things — Well. Again, I wanted to interfere. I wanted to stand up and protest. Part of me wishes I had.
Too Much Memory plays through February 28: Wed/Thu at 7:30 PM, Fri/Sat/Sun at 8:00 PM, with an additional performance Sundays at 2:00 PM. Performances take place in The Upstairs Theatre of Salt Lake Acting Company, located at 168 West 500 North in Salt Lake City. Tickets are $22. For more information call (801) 363-7522 or reserve tickets online at SaltLakeActingCompany.org. Audiences should be aware that the production includes strong language.