Riot Antigone does not shy away from its simple but effective premise. It’s a feminist call to arms using the Antigone tale as its mythic origin story. Based on some elements of Sophocles’s play, with a punk band as the central feature, this raucous musical by creator and director Seonjae Kim focuses on the voices of girls ignored, the destruction of singular women blurred into societal conformity, and the political inconvenience of female revolt.
As the child of the incestuous coupling of Oedipus and his mother, Antigone (Lauren Harkins) wonders what the point of her life is when so much of it has been defined by prophecy and this tragic family history. After her brothers have been fighting on opposite sides of the civil war in Thebes, both are killed. Her uncle Creon (Casey Wortmann), decrees that one brother, Etoecles, will be buried with honor and the other brother, Polynices, shall be left out to rot in shame with no such burial. Antigone cannot stand the injustice and finds her purpose in defying Creon and secretly burying Polynices. When it becomes public that it was Antigone who violated the order, she is given the choice to get out of trouble by apologizing or telling a lie to save herself. But she refuses to do either because she believes burying her brother was the right thing to do.
Rage against an unjust patriarchal state may begin with Antigone. She passes it on to her sister Ismene (Cathy Ang). But Kim makes the argument that this is a baton that has been handed to all of us through the ages and now is our time to overcome feelings of powerlessness and bring the fight.
With scenes interspersed with songs, the action plays out on rock-club style stage with amps covered in band stickers and a hastily spray-painted banner. Antigone acts alone but the structure of the musical allows for her to be surrounded with support. The punk band, chorus, and The Chorus Leader (Kasey Huizinga) provide narrative assistance. They tell Antigone’s story as well as singing their own complaints (“I won’t be quiet. I’m a girl riot.”). It may begin with “once upon a time” but Riot Antigone is firmly rooted in a contemporary POV and vernacular (The chorus sings of Antigone, “I sort of want to kiss her. I sort of want to ask her for advice”).
In a searing 11 o’clock number, “Asking For It” (music by Seonjae Kim, Mori Einsidler, lyrics by Seonjae Kim), Antigone sings as both an outcast to her Theban contemporaries and in reflection of wounded women yet to come. She sings in the voice of present-day rape survivors and women who’ve had enough with being told they’re crazy or making things difficult for men.
Not all songs are as strong. But we get insight into Antigone’s struggle with many numbers (“Love Sucks” and “Actor for Hire” felt a little off point). We watch her evolve from a helpless, passive mourner with others singing her inner thoughts to an actor where she sings her own pain, until the mic is passed to young Ismene.
The production alternates between scene and song with regularity and has a steady sameness to the visuals. Projections (sometimes with a hand-drawn ‘zine aesthetic by Garrett Allen and Sylvia Kang) add narrative and conceptual value but because of limited stage space they are hard to see or identify. A montage of famous women (one presumes, those in the inspirational lineage of riot grrls) flashed so quickly I could barely see the faces and recognize anyone save blips of Frida Kahlo and Annie Clark/St. Vincent.
Not all performances are on par but there is no faulting the energy and spirit unleashed by the enthusiastic artists on stage. This multi-racial cast of female and gender non-binary performers in torn fishnets, mid-drift bearing tops, pigtails, and pink hair, embody a give-no-fucks attitude and pride in their self-expression. They are not asking for anyone’s approval or permission. They are demanding attention and action.
There may be dramaturgical strains but when the audience jumps to its feet, shouting for an encore, and thrashes alongside the cast during that encore you can see this company has tapped into a need. Riot Antigone speaks directly to the moment we are standing in where this fury has long been bubbling. There is power in finally hearing your voice and anguish mirrored back to you after being so long ignored. The company shouts to the rest of us to join them in this battle, at the front. It’s hard to resist their call.