WATERTOWN — With one sharply executed production after another in the past year — Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,’’ Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig,’’ Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day’’ — Flat Earth Theatre has been on an impressive roll, demonstrating the passion and craft that fringe theater companies can bring to a range of important work.
Alas, that roll comes to a screeching halt with Flat Earth’s muddled “Antigone.’’ Circumstances beyond the company’s control are a major factor, but that doesn’t make the experience of this production any less frustrating for the audience or, I suspect, for the cast, who deliver uneven performances.
Directed by Lindsay Eagle, this staging employs Lewis Galantiere’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone,’’ which was itself a retelling of the tragedy by Sophocles. Written during the German occupation of France in World War II, the adaptation was fashioned by Anouilh as a rallying cry of resistance against both the Nazis and the collaborationists of the Vichy regime.
Flat Earth’s “Antigone’’ aims for a “Nevertheless, she persisted’’ topicality in telling the tale of the title figure (Regine Vital), a young woman who defies an unjust ruler, Creon, the king of Thebes, played by George Page. (More later on Page, his struggles, and the damaging impact on the production.)
In case your grasp of classical studies has grown shaky with the years, here’s a quick recap: Antigone’s father was King Oedipus — yes, that Oedipus, the fate-pummeled wretch who killed his father, married his mother, and gave Freud such an abundance of material to work with. Antigone is one of four children from the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta, including a sister, Ismene (Rachel Belleman), and two brothers, Eteocles and Plynices, who initially share the throne. Oh, and Antigone is engaged to Haemon, the son of her uncle, Creon. Haemon is played at Flat Earth by Cody Sloan, puzzlingly attired in a sweater and khakis that seem more suited to “High School Musical’’ than Greek tragedy.
Still, the Flat Earth production gets off to a promising start, with a sinuously entrancing chorus (Elbert Joseph, Michael John Ciszewski, and Emily Elmore) helpfully sketching what has transpired: A civil war erupted after Plynices led a rebellion against Eteocles; the brothers killed each other outside the gates of the city; Antigone’s uncle Creon was then made king; Creon promptly decreed that the body of Plynices was to be left to the dogs and vultures while Eteocles was to be buried with honors; and Antigone is now determined that Plynices shall receive a proper burial, even if she has to do it herself. As the chorus explains: “What is for Creon merely the climax of a political purge, is for her a hideous offense against God and Man.’’ That triggers an epic battle of wills between Antigone and Creon.
Or at least it should be epic. But Page had not mastered his lines by Monday night’s performance, more than a week into the run. He carried a digital tablet throughout the performance, consulting it for lines, and was never really able to develop his character, breaking the production’s rhythm.
It’s important to note that Page stepped into the role shortly before the show opened after illness forced the performer cast as Creon to leave. Page deserves credit for tackling such a challenge. He soldiered gamely on Monday, though it must have been agonizing for him. And I suppose Flat Earth is following in that venerable the-show-must-go-on tradition. (The production appeared to have been snakebit from the start. According to director Eagle, Page was the third actor in the role of Creon, the first having left because of personal issues.)
But it added up to a distraction for the audience. In those squirm-inducing moments, you can’t help but feel for an actor, making it almost impossible to lose yourself in the story. I haven’t felt so bad for a performer since the actor Bruce Myers, suffering from a severe case of jet lag, forgot his lines two dozen times during a 2011 performance at Boston’s Paramount Center of “The Grand Inquisitor,’’ a Peter Brook-directed adaptation of a section of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.’’
While “The Grand Inquisitor’’ was a solo piece, “Antigone’’ is not, and Page’s effortful struggles appeared to throw Vital off her game. It was especially noticeable during the extended showdown between Antigone and Creon that is the dramatic crux of the play. The scene virtually unraveled, though Vital’s performance was lacking in tragic grandeur in other scenes as well.
I fully expect Flat Earth to rebound with its next production, but explaining the mitigating circumstances beforehand might have helped the audience understand why “Antigone’’ falls so short of the company’s usual standard.
Adapted by Lewis Galantiere. From the play by Jean Anouilh. Directed by Lindsay Eagle. Presented by Flat Earth Theatre. At Black Box, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through March 31. Tickets $25, 617-923-8487, www.flatearththeatre.com