Nowadays, there's a formula to "updating" classical plays. If you're going to produce Shakespeare or Aeschylus in a postmodern way, the villain had better wear a pinstriped suit. The soldiers should don camouflage uniforms and paratrooper boots. The hero sports something fashionable, or at least handsome in another era. Nazi references are handy, plus some old iconography, like short swords or wise men cloaked in rags. Throwing in a burka makes the play "topical."
Point Park Conservatory's Antigone is exactly that kind of po-mo production, where King Creon looks like a CEO, Antigone wears the stola of an ancient maiden, and Andrew Homyak's set looks like a toppled Delphic temple. The adaptation, by Jean Anouilh, was written in occupied France and takes quite a few liberties; the Chorus, for instance, is just one man, who references movies and automobiles, and the language is loose and peppy. At first glance, this is just another vague political allegory, director John Amplas' self-important vanity project.
But if you ignore the silly costumes and the outrageous recorded soundtrack, this Antigone is a very moving production. You might ignore the Chorus, too, as nobly as Ryan McFarland speaks Anouilh's pointless monologues about how awesome tragedy is. This production succeeds because of the debate between Antigone and King Creon, a debate as relevant now as it was 2,400 years ago, when Sophocles penned it.
The story is simple: Creon has won a civil war and become King of Thebes. His enemy, Polyneices, died in combat, and Creon forbids anyone to bury the body. But Polyneices' sister, Antigone, yearns to bury the corpse. Even the loser deserves dignity, Antigone declares, and although the princess risks capital punishment, she defies the law and throws dirt on her brother's rotting flesh.
The conversation between Creon and Antigone is one of the great debates of Western literature, and the question of Antigone is timeless: Who is nobler, a practical tyrant or a caring naïf? Is a cool head stronger than a warm heart, is it the other way around?
This conservatory cast is remarkable because they seem to understand what they're saying -- which would be no small feat, even if they were literature professors. As Antigone, Connie Castanzo blazes with teen-age passion. As Creon, Justin Fortunato lumbers and blusters, and the young actor looks world-weary beyond his years. Nicholas Ragano adds comedy and redemption to the First Guard, without so much as a first name to guide him. Forget the gimmicks; these undergrads can pull off Greek classics all on their own.
Antigone continues through Nov. 1. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.