If it has been a while since you visited the Mt. Airy section of the city, now would be a good time to renew your acquaintance with one of Philly’s most eclectic neighborhoods. Located between Germantown and Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy is home to the fledgling Quintessence Theatre Group, which is currently mounting a fascinating production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone at the strikingly atmospheric Sedgwick Theater.
Originally penned by the great ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles, Anouilh adapted the tragedy (which is the third installment in Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy) in 1943 when France was occupied by Hitler’s forces. The play tells the story of Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone (talented young Philly actress Lavita Shaurice), who defies the ruler Creon (Broadway star Robert Jason Jackson) in order to bury her slain brother.
Antigone’s act of defiance takes place before the play begins; she knows that she must inevitability pay for her actions with her life. Unlike in a melodrama, we know there will be no surprise plot twists, no last-second reprieve for the heroine. We can only watch as each character plays their pre-destined part in the tragedy, and it is this sense of inevitability that gives the play (and all great tragedies) its tremendous power.
Many critics view Antigone’s act of civil disobedience as a representation of the French Resistance’s struggle against their Nazi occupiers. Burns’ chooses however not to push this interpretation on the audience. Instead, his production wisely focuses on Anouilh’s meta-theater discussion of tragedy as the purest form of drama.
Last time I saw Shaurice on stage she was delivering a jaw-dropping performance portraying a precocious child in the Wilma Theater’s My Wonderful Day . In Antigone , Shaurice is no less convincing portraying the 20-year-old title character. A spirited, opinionated woman, Shaurice’s Antigone is as single-minded as she is determined. She is dedicated to her cause even if it serves little practical purpose. In stark contrast to Shaurice’s idealistic Antigone, Jackson’s Creon is a practical and savvy politician whose only goal is to maintain control over the populace. It is an appropriately commanding performance, and the scenes between Jackson’s Creon and Shaurice’s Antigone make Quintessence’s production worth a visit.
Antigone is part of Quintessence’s mission to present epic classical theater, which is a laudable goal, but which Burns admits is economically “daunting” due to the large casts that classical works require ( Antigone employs 11 actors—a huge cast compared with most contemporary plays which typically require five performers or less). “Our weekly payroll is very large for such a small company, but we believe in paying our artists and we put all our financial resources into building the best ensembles of actors possible” says Burns.
While other companies have flourished presenting ever-shorter contemporary plays, Burns hopes that audiences will take a break from YouTube to experience the great works from theater history. “Every great city needs a great classical theater; a place to experience the great stories of our collective past,” he says. “As technology continues to alienate us and turns our civic discourse into 24 hour news cycles and 130 character tweets, I don’t think humanity has ever needed the timeless and epic vision of classical theater more.”
Hopefully he’s right. If Quintessence (which is only in its second season) succeeds in Mt. Airy, perhaps more neighborhoods will join Philadelphia’s expanding theater community.
$10-$30. Through March 25. Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. 877.238.5596. quintessencetheatre.org