Greek drama is designed to make audiences think and feel, and while I'm not sure I did much of either at the Saturday-night performances in Rock Island's Lincoln Park, I sure did grin a lot.
Regardless of style or genre, entertaining theatre has a way of putting audiences in great moods - I've personally smiled through well-staged productions of such varied, inherently tragic shows as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire and Hedda Gabler. And despite their seriousness, Genesius Guild's Seven Against Thebes and Antigone were a terrific time; the shows may not have had the knockabout power you hope for from Greek drama, but they certainly were enjoyable.
The enjoyment began - as these evenings in Lincoln Park most often do - with a greeting by Guild founder Don Wooten, a marvelously engaging speaker, who gave a brief history (and plot summary) of the Aeschylus and Sophocles works, promoted upcoming Genesius productions, and wrapped up with a delightfully self-deprecating, "Well, that's enough lecturing from me." (Note to Wooten, who will be retiring this year after 50 seasons with the Guild: It's never enough "lecturing" - we would happily listen to you expound on theatre and Genesius all night.)
After Wooten came the traditional opening procession by the shows' casts, which gave us a preview of Ellen Dixon's nifty costumes and the evening's stylistic coup de grace - the imposing, gorgeously-rendered masks (designed by the Reverend George Wuellner) worn by the principal actors in both Thebes and Antigone. Tall and narrow, with detailed features that made them resemble oversize Tiki heads, the masks were a clever touch, and added a completely unexpected perk to both productions.
Because, quite frankly, the use of masks was a risk. Deprived of their features, actors must work extra hard - especially in Greek drama - to get the meaning of their lines across, and when a stationary performer is giving a lengthy speech from behind a mask, and there's no other movement on stage to distract you, tedium often sets in - you can easily find yourself being lulled by the vocal rhythms without gleaning what the actors are talking about. (Wooten, who co-directed the night's productions with Peggy Hanske, warned the audience that the 40-minute Thebes was a "fairly static" play, and despite the intelligence behind the show's compositions, he wasn't kidding.)
Yet there were benefits to the masks' employment, too, as the Genesius Guild actors did appear to work extra hard; their interpretations and projection were most often topnotch - no more than a few lines were lost - and some came through with truly inspired work. For instance, I've seen Bob Hanske and Bryan Woods in several shows over the last year-plus, and have never heard them so vocally assured as they were here as the Messenger and Creon, respectively, and Michael Callahan - who, it seems, is never less than wonderful - was in fantastic form as the blind prophet Tiresias. Rae Mary's Antigone and Chris Hicks' Ismene were emotionally strong, and as Antigone's Sentry, Jonathan Gregoire's modernistic readings gave the production exactly the light, comic touch it needed. (Gregoire managed a nearly impossible feat - two Lincoln Park raccoons, bathing in the downstage moat, threatened to scamper away with the audience's attention until Gregoire's surprising vocal playfulness reminded them where the real show was taking place. Take that, raccoons!)
Meanwhile, the faces that were seen in the shows were animated and expressive. The 11 females who composed Thebes' Greek chorus seemed to be truly feeling their lamentations and were endlessly watchable; their speaking-in-unison lines were particularly sharp, and their gentle heartbreak registered without overt histrionics. I was never less than pleased to see them.
Seven Against Thebes and Antigone could have benefited from being more forceful. But the sincerity of the works kept me in a great mood throughout the evening, and, on a sheerly personal level, I even stayed in a great mood afterwards. I caught Genesius Guild's season opener, The Mikado, on that wicked-cold Saturday night in June, and at their performance of The Tempest two weeks later, our audience spent the last 20 minutes being lightly rained on. After this Saturday's production ended, however, there was no chill, no precipitation, and I drove home with the window rolled down and a warm summer breeze on my face. Smiling.
For more information, visit (http://www.genesius.org).