“Remember, we’re women,” Ismene tells her sister, Antigone.
Her warning, coming minutes into the new Cutting Ball Theater production of “Antigone,” reminds the title character – and the audience – who holds the power in postwar Thebes.
As the second offering in its season-long exploration of injustice, the company’s take on Sophocles’ tragedy is a stark portrayal of a woman against the system – although its impact is often blunted by uneven directorial choices.
This “Antigone,” which unfolds in a brisk 90 minutes, has a lot going for it. Mounted following the company’s two-week residency at Poland’s Grotowski Institute, it boasts a new translation by Daniel Sullivan and an often fluid staging directed by Paige Rogers.
Rogers employs a mix of dance, chant and ritualized movement to outline the play’s central dilemma: when Antigone vows to give her brother, Polyneices, a proper burial, she risks everything. King Kreon, having announced that Polyneices died a traitor, has decreed that anyone who buries him will be put to death.
The production keeps the eight-member cast, draped in dark colors, in constant motion on Michael Locher’s spare set, with Heather Basarab’s lighting drawing the eye toward the action of the moment.
The use of movement is effective in some scenes, distracting in others. The cast vocalizes well, although the chorus effect – lines delivered by the ensemble in unison – grows wearying. The singing, in folk songs and lullabies, enhances the drama, but an interlude inexplicably set to “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” simply halts the dramatic flow.
Sullivan’s translation re-casts Sophocles’ text for 21st century theatergoers. That’s both its novelty (at one point, Antigone taunts Kreon by calling him a “bean counter”) and its principal challenge. The script’s lofty language and contemporary idioms don’t always cohere.
Performances are similarly uneven. The finest moments belong to Elissa Beth Stebbins’ indelible Chorus Lead, Hannah Donovan’s tender Ismene, and Paul Loper’s articulate Tiresias. Emma Crane Jaster makes the most of her comic scene as a Sentry.
In the title role, Madeline H.D. Brown summons Antigone’s strength, but not quite enough of her character’s grief. Jason W. Wong’s one-note Kreon misses the king’s ruthlessness, and Wiley Naman Strasser lacks definition as Haemon. Tim Green is a stolid Sentry.
By the end, the implications of Ismene’s warning are hauntingly clear. But the production simmers where it should burn. Despite flashes of intensity, this “Antigone” never quite achieves tragic grandeur.
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes March 29
Tickets: $10 to $50
Contact: (415) 525-1205, www.cuttingball.com