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There is little more ancient in the history of the theater than this recounting of the agonies of Prometheus, the Titan tortured by king-god Zeus for contravening his will and saving us mortals with the gifts of fire and knowledge. Yet in this searing production at the Getty Villa in Malibu, the experience could not be more compellingly contemporary in its emotions and themes. Who cannot relate to the pain of existential abandonment, of anger at arbitrary authority, of pity for suffering caused by sacrifice? Cursed by foresight, Prometheus had aligned himself with the gods against Father Kronos when he realized that his fellow Titans arrogantly assumed their brute strength would perforce vanquish Zeus’ superior guile, only to be punished by his former ally for presuming to rescue the humanity Zeus had sought to destroy.
Curiously, though the text had been attributed for millennia to Aeschylus, that putative author’s name is nowhere mentioned in the program notes, bowing to comparatively recent critical opinion, largely based on close text analysis, that the source was another, unknown, writer. (Tradition, one might think, would require some acknowledgment.) Fortunately, translator Joel Agee has found exciting ways to vivify the speeches with apparently scrupulous fidelity to sound, creating brittle cadences that bespeak a distinctive tone, neither remote nor artificial, which credibly falls on the ear as both otherworldly and bracingly forthright. In this English, the poetry slashes like modern verse and the direct address boasts a blunt immediacy that exhorts us to consider our own issues with the State, with individualism and obedience, with the larger consequences of war and despoilment. It blows away the dated rhetoric of such predecessors as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Lowell. And it all hums vividly in the superbly clear, unamplified outdoor acoustic of the Fleischman amphitheater nestled in the Malibu hills, where the interfering sounds of overhead planes and barking dogs only enhance the theatrical effect.
There has been a lot of appropriately awed advance attention devoted to the extraordinary set overseen by designer Efren Delgadillo Jr., a massive five-ton, 23-foot-tall wheel that provides a stark yet ceaselessly allusive metaphor for the binding of Prometheus to the cliff at the end of the world, evocative of eternity and of a universe simultaneously vast and crushingly finite. This bold stroke conjures echoes as disparate as Beckett (as immobile a protagonist as Winnie in Happy Days) or Busby Berkeley (our overhead viewpoint of a circle of choreographed movement). Certainly this single image will remain emblazoned in theatergoers’ memories for a long time to come, an indelible expression of the play’s essence.
The vision of director Travis Preston makes the most of this thought-provoking material and the environmental possibilities of the venue and the design. No thread of argument is scanted, yet the movement and diction of the players remains lucid and forceful: This is a deeply considered rendering, without obfuscation or vague passages, its gestures dynamic and pointed. The effective mix of actors is glorious, from the magisterial and tormented Prometheus of the grand talent Ron Cephas Jones (making his Los Angeles theatrical debut) to the desperately frenzied Io of Mirjana Jokovic, the splendid 12-woman chorus of CalArts grads and such stalwarts of the local scene as Adam Haas Hunter, Tony Sancho and Kalean Ung.
This variant on Prometheus myth parallels many Christian doctrines: Humanity, upon seizing knowledge, must hereafter be condemned in its independence to fend for itself for sustenance as penance for perpetrating that original sin; Prometheus, nailed to his perch, must endure unspeakable pain for the redemption of mankind. And in the subsequent Prometheus Unbound, which exists only in tantalizing fragments, things get worse: The bird that pecks daily at his liver does not arrive until that next installment (though as foretold in this play, Io’s descendant Herakles arrives to free him). While the discourse here can sometimes become abstruse in its references to obscure classical names of places and people, its meanings, while complex and intricate, are readily discerned. In this savagely civilized mounting, a play exhorts us across 2,500 years to connect deeply with concerns that touch us as profoundly now as in Athenian days.
Venue: The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa, Malibu (runs through Sept. 28)
Cast: Ron Cephas Jones, Mirjana Jokovic, Adam Haas Hunter, Tony Sancho, Joseph Kamal, Michael Blackman, Sarah Beaty, Kaitlin Cornuelle, Genevieve Gearhart, Jenny Greer, Heather Hewko, Paula Rebelo, Megan Therese Rippey, Jessica Rosilyn, Chuja Seo, Kalean Ung, Amanda Washko, Tatiana Williams
Director: Travis Preston
Playwright: Translation from the Greek by Joel Agee, based on a text generally attributed to Aeschylus
Set designer: Efren Delgadillo Jr.
Lighting designer: Anne Militello
Costume designer: Ellen McCartney
Music: Vinny Golia, Ellen Reid, played by Golia and Chris Lopes
Musical direction: Ellen Reid
Choreography: Mira Kingsley
Producer: Carol Bixler for CalArts Center for New Performance in association with Trans Arts
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