Tragedy plays out at Menifee theater

Veteran actor Larry Sichter, seated, takes direction from instructor Payden Ackerman during an early rehearsal for Antigone, opening April 20 at MSJC’s Menifee Valley Campus. Valley News/Courtesy photo

If you take an ancient Greek tragedy and combine it with a little film noir style, you get the experimental adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone being presented at the Mt. San Jacinto College Menifee Valley Campus later this month. The MVC Lab Theatre provides an intimate setting that gives audiences a more emotional connection with the actors and their characters. Directed by MVC’s Theater Arts Department Chair and instructor Payden Ackerman, the play can be very easily interpreted by today’s audiences.

“Antigone is a story about a young woman defying the immense power of the state,” he explained. “In an age where laws are being passed to limit women’s agency and choice, it is inspiring to see a character such as Antigone stand up to authority. What’s more, Antigone can be considered a conscientious objector; she proclaims her beliefs and acts on them, but also accepts the punishment meted out to her. She is the original underdog, and I think we’ve a thing or two to learn from her.”

Written by Sophocles around 441 B.C.E., detailing the events following King Oedipus’ exile, a well-known 1986 translation of Antigone was done by Don Taylor. Ackerman said his version is an original take on Taylor’s production although he was inspired by the 2012 production at the National Theatre which used the Taylor translation.

Rehearsals by cast and crew are in play prior to the April 20-23 performances of Antigone in Menifee. Valley News/Courtesy photo

“They presented the play as a political thriller to great effect,” Ackerman said. “During our rehearsal process, we employed several ‘experiments,’ as I like to call them, in order to find the right tone and aesthetic quality for our ensemble. As a director, you may have one vision to start, but the ensemble is a living and breathing entity; sometimes through rehearsal, the show will take a new direction. This is exactly what happened with our production. The film noir style presented itself through the actors’ treatment of the script; as a director I merely saw the writing on the wall, so to speak.”

He added, “Our production modernizes the setting to a film noir aesthetic, providing a new twist on the storied tale. We’ve also streamlined the script to appeal to contemporary audiences and included original music from one of our own student actors. The result is a new work of art.”

Cast members are Stone Ramirez, Madi Snider, Krista McClean, Marisa Kesler, Kyle Whan, Mason Sandoval, Jacob Nguyen and Larry Sichter. He said each one brought a creative willingness that was inspiring.

“Halfway through rehearsals, we changed our design concept to suit the actors themselves,” Ackerman said. “This is very unusual in theatrical production. With the support of my assistant director Ashli Sabree and our stage manager Mollymawk Blight, we were able to craft a production that belongs to the actors as well as the production team.”

He said about half of the cast are completely new to stage acting, including the actor playing the part of Creon which he said is significant, because Creon actually has a larger role than Antigone, who the play is named after.

“Additionally, the actor playing Creon, Stone Ramirez, is creating original music for the show,” Ackerman said. “That’s not to diminish the other actors: we have several experienced musical theatre actors who are taking on a Greek tragedy for the first time. We also have seasoned actors playing Teiresias and Eurydice.”

Sichter plays the role Teiresias, a blind prophet who reappeared in several of Sophocles’ plays. “He’s a mystic and an augury (a person who can understand and talk to birds),” Sichter explained. “Greek audiences would have been familiar with him. He is comfortable speaking to power and offers his powers to better society.”

After retiring from a career in television production and management in 2013, Sichter reignited his passion for theater during a meeting with Ackerman. A Menifee resident since 1996, this is Sichter’s ninth show at MSJC. He has acted with community theater companies in the past, including Riverside Community Players, CAST Players of Beaumont, Bach Theatre Company in Murrieta and Temecula Old Town Theatre.

“Payden allowed me to volunteer for this show, since I’ve taken all the acting classes MSJC has had to offer. I enjoy the attention Payden pays to his actors. And he’s willing to experiment with theatre, so his best shows are shall we say, uncommon,” Sichter said. “I’m older by several decades than the other players in this show and my scenes are primarily with the young man who plays King Creon. He’s a remarkable actor.”

Ackerman currently teaches an introduction to theater, an introduction to theater history, fundamentals of acting and the production course. Although he is a writer first and performer second, he does have stage experience. He has a B.A. in Playwriting and an M.A. in Theatre Studies. In 2018, a production he collaborated on and acted in received Best Ensemble Theatre at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. In 2019, he acted in a production that was recognized as Best Intimate Immersive by Immersion Nation. The immersive production, “Welcome to Respite,” was then adapted to a V.R. experience. He continues to collaborate with CoAct Productions, who produced “Respite” to international acclaim.

A modern manifestation of a global tragedy has been the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus affected almost everyone, physically and/or mentally, it was also a huge disruption to theater in terms of learning, teaching and presenting. Ackerman said that post-pandemic lockdown, his department has offered a few in-person classes but the majority of them have been online or hybrid.

“The pandemic necessitated the use of remote learning,” he said. “Theatre is intrinsically a live art form. It makes sense an art such as ours would suffer from these circumstances. I also have noticed many students do not seem to be interested in performing live; instead, I have many students interested in recorded performances, for such platforms as YouTube and TikTok. This could be due to the level of comfort students feel with digital media, and discomfort with live presentation of art.”

Ackerman tries to further engage students by offering an acting coaching experience that students will not find online. “The pandemic has fundamentally changed learning,” he said. “We must adapt to meet students’ needs. How to do that is still a question.”

The industry has not yet recovered from the effects of the pandemic, but Ackerman is hopeful that productions like Antigone will bring in audiences that can appreciate the effort and talent that goes into live theater and will continue to support it.

“I’m still learning how theatre artists might exist in the coming years,” he said. “It has been a very difficult road. Students seem to have coped with remote learning by embracing digital media and experiences. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back. For now, theatre artists and teachers will continue to struggle to reach live audiences.”

A preview of Antigone will be staged on April 20 at 7 p.m. with performances on April 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. and a matinee on April 23 at 2 p.m. The production runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. All tickets are $5 each with online tickets redeemed at the door. Ticket purchases at the door are cash only. The MVC Lab Theatre is in room 207 at the MSJC campus, 28237 La Piedra Road. For more information,