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Antigone and the elusive ghosts of justice

Antigonick- Mainstage Series, SummerWorks Performance Festival 2014

What is a young woman to do when confronted with great injustice in the world? Antigone provides the classic, heroic example, refusing to bow to an unjust law and going to her grave out of principle and love.

In 2012, Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson followed up Nox, her idiosyncratically presented poetic exploration of the death of her brother, by publishing Antigonick, an idiosyncratically presented translation of Sophocles' play.

Thematically, this artistic progression made sense: Antigone, too, struggles to bury a much-loved brother. Kreon, Antigone's uncle and the new ruler of Thebes, has issued an edict that Polyneikes, who had been warring against the state, shall be left uninterred. Antigone refuses to leave her brother, "sweet sorrymeat for the little lusts of birds," however – and the rest is Greek tragedy. (These are Carson's words and her spellings of the well-known Oedipal clan.)

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Every line in Antigonick, in its published version, is hand-scrawled by Carson in black and red, and the pages are overlaid with seemingly unrelated illustrations by Bianca Stone printed on translucent vellum (one is of a horse slipping on a banana peel and knocking over a dinner table).

Cole Lewis, a recent directing graduate from the Yale School of Drama, takes the script's look as well its lines as inspiration for her multilayered production at Toronto's SummerWorks Festival. Reid Thompson's set is a white wall on which a mute character Nick (Joshua Stodart) hand-scrawl's Antigone's name and pins lengths of red string throughout the show.

Kreon (Dimitry Chepovetsky, in a casual, cutting performance) slices through the set with an Exacto knife to enter one scene, while an overhead projector overlays Nick Hussong's (un)related images onto it.

While Carson calls her vivid, visceral Antigonick a translation, it takes liberties. To the dramatis personae, she has added Nick, who is "always on stage, measuring things." The opening dialogue has Antigone (a committed Sascha Cole) and her sister Ismene arguing about Hegel and Beckett, while, later, Kreon greets the blind prophet Teiresias with a casual, "What's up?"

Antigonick received more mixed reactions than Nox. The Times Literary Supplement decried the "facile diversion" of the contemporary references and dismissed the colloquialisms as "vulgarities." Even a positive review in The Guardian noted that, at times, the book "teeters towards incomprehensibility." What these reviews failed to note is that Antigonick is a play, not a poem – and therefore incomplete in print. It requires actors and an audience, and moments in Carson's text that seem odd on the page are actually gaps that an intelligent and inquiring director can fill.

Lewis is an imaginative director, and here's hoping her fittingly anarchic and anachronistic production gets a fuller life in the future. She plays artfully with the passage of time and makes excellent use of music, a small child cast member, and a janitor's yellow mop bucket.

It's only on seeing Carson's words come to life that you fully register the ever-present Nick – who gets his name after "the nick of time" but may also may be Antigone's beloved Polyneikes (and perhaps other dead brothers).

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He Left Quietly by Yael Farber, the South African writer and director whose sensational adaptation of Miss Julie toured this year, also features a ghost on stage.

This 2002 play is based on the testimony of Duma Joshua Kumalo at South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 1984, Duma was sentenced to death for murder through a law of "common purpose" under which you could be condemned simply for being in the vicinity of a crime. He spent years on death row, thinking each day could be his last, before finally being released.

Leora Morris's taut production has a moving central performance from Conrad Coates as Duma, and another from Tawiah M'Carthy as the part of Duma that he left behind in prison.

Farber, white and Jewish, is a part of the story as well – played by Aviva Armour-Ostroff. She's here to consider the idea of "common purpose" as it related to her and her family – to what extent are her parents guilty of perpetrating the crimes of apartheid through "common purpose"?

The Good Story, a new play by Alexa Gilker, complicates that question. Alex (a passionate Pippa Leslie) is a well-meaning young Christian from Calgary who refuses to stand by in the face of injustice and heads to Mexico, Albania and India to do well-meaning development work and spread the gospel. Along the way, she discovers the limits of being a missionary, whether religious or secular, and, in an orphanage in India, the darker side of development. Might she have made things worse by trying to help? Would it have, in fact, been better to do nothing?

Based on Gilker's own experiences, The Good Story (solidly directed by Sandi Barrett) lives up to its title – but I'm not sure if the veil of fiction does the subject matter justice. In He Left Quietly, Farber found a way to tell Duma's story without appropriating it, by including his testimony and involving him in the creation process of her play. Gilker's story ultimately ends up being all about the guilt its white protagonist feels. Still, telling stories seems a better response to injustice than doing nothing – that is, if you aren't willing to go to the extremes of Antigone.

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SummerWorks continues in various Toronto locations until Aug. 17.

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