Antigone behind (and beyond) bars

Director Patrick Walsh is bringing a filmed production of a Greek tragedy to prisons across Oregon

“Thank you for being here.” 

“Don’t forget about us when you leave.”

Those two audience reactions have echoed through director Patrick Walsh’s mind ever since he brought Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative’s modern retelling of The Iliad (called An Iliad) to prisons across Oregon in 2018, including Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only women’s penitentiary in the state.

“I love The Iliad,” Walsh says. “But both the play and the source text are very male-centric. And so I really wanted to create a production with a strong female heroine—not only for the women at Coffee Creek.”

So Walsh turned to a play with a heroine who is equal parts steely will and wrenching vulnerability. It was a play that fit his fascination with ancient power struggles that reverberate with contemporary meaning; a play with the potential to make incarcerated audiences feel liberated, if only fleetingly.

Walsh knew that he had to direct Antigone for NWCTC. He didn’t know that he would have to defy a pandemic to do it.

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Masked, separated, ready to roll: Shooting an “Antigone” for the pandemic age in the old Wapato Jail space. Photo courtesy Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

“If I’m wrong, I’ll recognize my error soon enough.”

Patrick Walsh and I go way back. When I was a 25-year-old intern at Willamette Week in 2016, his production of Richard III at the now-shuttered Post5 Theatre was the first play I reviewed. I still drool over Matt Smith’s magnificently malevolent portrayal of Richard, a monarch whose festering megalomania and neediness made him a distorted mirror image of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“That was such a weird play to do in the fall of 2016,” Walsh says. “It was so weird for me to be going back and forth between the election cycle and everything in that play and going, ‘Oh my god, this is way too real.’”

“Too real” could describe Antigone. Written by Sophocles around 442 B.C., the play is set in the city of Thebes, which has survived an assault led by Polyneices, who is killed. Polyneices’ sister Antigone wants to bury his body, but her plea is rejected by Creon, the ruler of Thebes, who sentences her to death. Antigone may be the daughter of Oedipus, but royalty doesn’t protect her from Creon (any more than stardom protected Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd and numerous other famous women from Harvey Weinstein).

Walsh wanted to stage a translation of Antigone that didn’t dismiss its heroine. That ruled out Seamus Heaney’s 2004 version The Burial at Thebes, which Walsh says is overly welded to Creon’s perspective. “He makes it much more about Creon’s struggle internally and with his family, rather than Antigone’s story,” he says. “In the English-speaking world, that has largely become the template for what that play is.”

Rejecting that template, Walsh chose Anne Carson’s 2012 translation, which amplifies the feminist fire of Sophocles’ original text by focusing on what Walsh describes as “Antigone’s journey to self-actualization through a patriarchal structure.” (Carson also changes some of the standard English spellings of Sophocles’ characters; Creon becomes Kreon. Bakkhai, Carson’s adaptation of another Greek classic, Euripides’ The Bacchae, was a hit in Portland a year ago at Shaking the Tree Theatre.) 

The shift in perspective was invigorating for Ashley Mellinger, who plays Antigone. She was particularly heartened by Carson’s correcting of Antigone’s final speech, which originally had the character expressing a sense of deference toward the state (her words are considered so brazenly out of character that there has been speculation that Sophocles didn’t write them).

“Antigone is walking to her tomb,” Mellinger says. “She commands those around her to look at her and to witness her. The only time at which she ever admits that she might be wrong is when she says, ‘If I’m wrong, I’ll recognize my error soon enough. But if I’m not wrong, then I hope everyone who did this to me experiences the same thing that they did to me.’”

Paul Susi as Kreon, Ashley Mellinger as Antigone. Photo: Gary Norman

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“It’s funny that you mention cobwebs….”

Before Covid-19 strangled Portland’s theater scene, Walsh recruited a cast headlined by Mellinger and Paul Susi as Kreon (Susi’s many performances in Walsh’s productions include playing Achilles in a graveyard-set Troilus and Cressida). The pandemic forced them to take a hiatus.

“At the end of March, April, I think like everybody else, I was just really scared,” Walsh says. “We started out just saying we were taking a break, because a lot of us assumed that we would be able to get back to business as usual in a couple weeks, and obviously, that didn’t happen.”

The cast and crew eventually filmed the play on August 22 and 23 at the unused Wapato Jail in North Portland, which has been rebranded as a homeless shelter, the Bybee Lakes Hope Center (a.k.a. BLHC). It wasn’t what Walsh had planned, but it actually expanded Antigone’s reach—the play will be shown on closed-circuit televisions at every prison in the state (it will also be distributed to shelters and schools).

The location switch proved daunting, especially since the production was shot with the actors six feet apart and wearing masks. “It was really frustrating, I’m not going to lie,” Mellinger says. “If we would get really emphatic and emotional—I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to yell at someone with a mask on, but that thing just wants to fly off your face.”

Antigone’s cast also coped with the reality of being in a building for days that was built to be a prison. I joked to Mellinger that people were probably imagining the actors filming in a dungeon filled with chains and cobwebs; turns out that wasn’t too far from reality. “It’s funny that you mention cobwebs, because the space had never been used, so there actually were quite a few cobwebs around,” she told me.

Yet the former Wapato Jail was arguably the perfect place for Antigone. After all, the play’s protagonist exists in a state of imprisonment—she is shackled by a system that, to quote Walsh, punishes women when they “stand up to a society, when they try to do right, when they try to follow their hearts.”

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Cellist Anna Fritz composed the score for “Antigone.” Photo: Gary Norman

“He’s in the middle of an endless war.”

Before I interviewed Susi about playing Kreon, he gave me some advice: Talk to Anna Fritz. Fritz, a founding member of the Portland Cello Project and an alumnus of An Iliad, is the cellist who composed the score for Antigone. “To me,” Susi wrote in an email, “the music that Anna created and performs for Antigone is as important as Sophocles’ text.”

Fritz, who performed the score live during filming, wrote a theme for Antigone that persists throughout the play. “In the scene when she has been sentenced to death and she’s going to the cave when she is going to be buried alive,” Fritz says, “her theme comes back in a different key with a lot more angst … and pain as she is speaking to the community of Thebes about what is being done to her and how wrong it is.”

Injustice is clearly on the minds of Antigone’s cast and crew. “He’s comfortable with himself and he’s smug because he is following the law,” Susi says of Kreon. “The problem is that the law itself is wrong and the way that the law has been enforced is wrong, and it’s obvious to everyone in the community that there’s a profound hypocrisy and hollowness to the righteousness of Kreon and his position.”

Embodying Kreon meant that Susi had to have empathy for him. “He’s in the middle of an endless war,” he explains. “There’s an uncontrolled plague going around the ancient city of Thebes—much as there’s an uncontrolled plague going around now—and he is doing the best he can with what he has.”

Susi, who worked as a homeless shelter manager for five years, seems to suggest that the true villain of Antigone isn’t just Kreon or the patriarchy. It’s the very idea of go-it-alone authority figures. 

“They don’t feel like they have a lot of options or like they have a lot of support from the world around them,” he says. “Simply put, ‘I know best, Daddy will take care of you all, you all just need to sit down and shut up and stop making so much noise.’ It is just so disconcerting to see that over 2,500 years, the same instincts still apply.”

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Inside Wapato: Filming from a distance in a lockup space. Photo courtesy Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

“How could we best recreate that feeling of community?”

Antigone will be ready for distribution in about a month (as of now, it has not been decided if it will be shown to the general public, which would require Anne Carson’s consent). But what will Oregon look like then? Prisons have already felt the effects of the wildfires scorching the state: 1,303 inmates, for instance, had to be evacuated from Coffee Creek.

Meanwhile, the production itself remains cloaked in uncertainty. During the week that I began interviewing Team Antigone, Mellinger was still wondering how a masked, socially distanced play would translate to film.

“I will say that when I was watching other people perform in their masks, it was still compelling, maybe because there was still the novelty of seeing someone perform live,” she says. “But I don’t know what it’s going to look like when translated to film. I truly don’t, and I just will have to wait to see a rough cut of what we ended up creating to see if that same engagement that I felt in the room will have translated to this digital product.”

A few days after I talked to Mellinger, I found myself disquieted by another question: Why film a play for the imprisoned in a prison? Wouldn’t much of Walsh’s intended audience rather see anyplace else? I had to know, so I emailed him. He wrote back:

“The BLHC was the first choice because of the need to remain socially distant, and try to ‘be in the same room’ as the majority of our audiences. How could we best recreate that feeling of community that we try to foster when we visit those rooms and perform? We were looking for a way to, visually, make that happen.”

It made sense to me—filming at BLHC was an act of solidarity, a declaration that the cast and crew of Antigone wouldn’t pretend that their incarcerated audiences were free.

“It’s a scary time and it’s hard not to think of yourself and I don’t blame anybody,” Walsh says. “But I think our audiences are largely groups of folks that people have forgotten about. If you’ve been in a prison in Oregon since March 13, you haven’t been able to see family. No visitors have been allowed in.”

Walsh did shoot one part of the play outside BLHC—a scene of Kreon walking into the sunset, which was filmed at Mt. Tabor Park. It’s fitting that the production shows its antagonist going beyond symbolic walls, since the play allows for a hope for Kreon—a hope that drives what Walsh, Mellinger, Susi, Fritz and the rest of the cast and crew have created together.

That hope is the belief that one day, something—be it a person, a nation or a movement—will make Kreon see that even if he had spared Antigone, that wouldn’t have been enough. Her life was never his to spare.

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