‘Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine’s’: On- and offstage lives
From left, Jessica Ma, Scarlet Sheppard, Madeleine Hernandez, Emma Mercier, Chloe Wray Gonzalez and Jenny Griffin / Jessica Sherman

LOS ANGELES—Sacred Fools has long been among my favorite theater companies, and its West Coast premiere of Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine’s only confirms my longstanding admiration and affection for this imaginative enclave of theatrical envelope-pushers.

The ancient myth of Antigone, a young woman who suffered for heroically standing up to irrational authority, has been oft adapted by top talents for literally 2500 years, starting with tragedies by both Sophocles and Euripides. The 20th century saw Antigone-related stage productions by dramatists Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, Athol Fugard and Bertolt Brecht, as well as a ballet and opera by the great Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis (who contributed memorable film scores for Z, Zorba the Greek, and Serpico).

Award-winning playwright Madhuri Shekar is the latest in this venerable lineage, injecting a female, (South Asian) Indian, and 21st-century sensibility with her idiosyncratic take on the iconic Grecian legend, Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine’s. Shekar’s one-act play is set at St. Catherine’s Preparatory School, an all-girl Catholic boarding school in rural Connecticut. There, six female teenagers in their school uniforms are rehearsing a production of Antigone, under the tutelage of the cast’s sole male member, the play-within-a-play’s director, who is called Mr. Reed by most, and by a select few “Jamie” (Spanish actor Luis Fernandez-Gil).

St. Catherine’s conceit is that the school play the students are mounting mirrors the offstage lives of these young women and their drama teacher at the repressive school, where the strict nuns are sticklers for the rules and unsupportive of theatrics. What Shekar has concocted is a cocktail mixing the subjects of Catholic church sex abuse scandals, the #MeTooMovement, generational differences among romantic partners, friendship, betrayal, secrecy, teenage coming-of-age Sturm und Drang, sexual splendor, self-expression through the arts, and more, all rather cleverly set against the backdrop of an Antigone agonistes.

There is much adolescent angst and anxiety amongst the pupils about their budding sexuality. Marilyn (Emma Mercier, whose character also plays Antigone) and Greta (Madeleine Hernandez) allude to sleeping in bed together (but is that all they did—sleep?). Tamsin (Jessica Ma, who is the standout amongst this magnificent seven cast) strikes a defiant stance with a Goth-like appearance, wearing beneath her skirt torn black net stockings on her legs which are provocatively apart when sitting, facing the audience. At one point Tamsin tries to plant a kiss on the lips of one of her classmates and alludes to having been previously sexually molested by a male.

In 1999 I asked movie director William Friedkin what the difference was between then-contemporary films and seventies cinema. He replied that the latter had much more “ambiguity.” In the same vein, Shekar’s plot, characters and their motivations aren’t black and white. Favors may not be “sexchanged” solely to get a lead role within the context of a power and age dynamic (à la Harvey Weinstein). True love, first love—at least as perceived and “sexperienced” by a 16-year-old—may be part of the equation. At least that’s what one of the actors told me she believed was at foot at the after-party in The Broadwater Plunge, the theatrical watering hole that is part and parcel of the complex where the Sacred Fools hang out nowadays.

Emma Mercier and Luis Fernandez-Gil / Jessica Sherman

The ensemble is well-honed by director Reena Dutt, who enhances the play’s distinctive female voice that’s so important to be heard in our patriarchal society. I was genuinely shocked to discover at the reception that Jenny Griffin as Anna, Chloe Wray Gonzalez as Lily, and others, who so convincingly portrayed tittering teens were, in reality, young women in their twenties. They certainly had this reviewer fooled! Nancy Dobbs Owen’s costumes contributed to the youthful illusions. (Although ticket buyers should leave the kiddies at home, adults might want to accompany mature teens to see their onstage counterparts.)

Amanda Knehans’s scenic design bestowed a cloister-like ambiance, and when combined with Kaitlin D. Chang’s lighting, was expressive as from time to time shadowy figures could be glimpsed through the backdrop. Dennis Peraza’s sound, leaning toward a Heavy Metal vibe, reinforced the play’s overall sense of angstiness (did I just coin a word?).

I don’t know if the saint referred to in the title of St. Catherine’s is the 4th-century martyr from Alexandria, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (a group of Roman Catholic saints venerated for their power of intercession), or the scholarly St. Catherine of Siena, a mystic and “Doctor of the Church” born in the 14th century. But I do know that St. Catherine’s is in a long line of exceptional stage productions Sacred Fools has unleashed upon the world that have made this company one of the true gems of L.A.’s intimate theater scene. As for their latest sacred and profane “fools-hardy” venture about lust, taboos, dramatics and more set at a religious school, my humble suggestion to theatergoers is, as Hamlet told Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery!”

Sacred Fools Theater Company’s production of Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine’s plays through April 11 on Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 p.m., Sun., March 22, 29 and April 5 at 3:00 p.m., and Mon., March 30 at 8:00 p.m., at The Broadwater Main Stage, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles 90038. Reservations can be made by contacting: sfreservations@sacredfools.org, or buy tickets online.

For those who value excellence and diversity on the stage, The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival’s 27th annual fête, focusing on multi-culti female solo performers, is taking place March 26-29 at Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood 91601. See here for more info.

For info about the upcoming 70th anniversary commemoration of the imprisonment of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten see here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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