Wheel of Misfortune: The Black Prometheus

Prometheus Bound

Ron Cephas Jones

Prometheus Bound Theatre Review

Every once in a great while audiences have that rare opportunity to experience a profoundly sublime work that dares to express “the big idea.” The Getty Museum, CalArts Center for New Performance and Trans Arts’ co-production of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound is this theater season’s exceptional undertaking of transcendent artistry with insight into and about the human condition and spirit.

What this creative team has done is the epic transposing of a 5th century B.C. classic written at the dawn of drama into a 21st century context, rendering the ancient avant-garde with some high tech stagecraft Aeschlus, Euripides, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato and even Zeus himself would have marveled at. With this updating the cast and crew have lost none of the flavor and potency of Aeschylus’ tragedy first performed around 450 B.C., but rather make antiquity’s enduring play relevant for contemporary (amphi)theatergoers. In doing so, they have quite arguably created nothing less than a modern masterpiece.

In Prometheus Bound [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] the title character (Ron Cephas Jones) is, according to Greek mythology, one of the godlike Titans overthrown by the Olympian gods, led by their king,   omnipotent Zeus. Like the Polynesian demigod Maui and Norse deity Loki, Prometheus is a trickster. Furthermore, Prometheus (which means “foresight”) is exceedingly fond of we mere mortals, and through some sleight of hand bamboozles Zeus into accepting the bad end of a sacrifice that favors the humans, whom Zeus rather contemptuously derides as “day-flies.” To make matters worse, Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to humanity, therefore making civilization (not to mention haute cuisine) possible. As our hero Prometheus says: “I knew when I transgressed nor will deny it In helping Man, I brought my troubles on me.” These “troubles” consist of being impaled upon a mountaintop “at the far edge of the world” by Zeus to punish the upstart Titan. (Note: This is the first in what is believed to be Aeschylus’ Promethean trilogy, and contains no liver-eating eagles.)

Prometheus BoundEnter the aforementioned technical wizardry, with Prometheus being shackled to a rather ingeniously wrought 23-foot-high, five-ton revolving wheel. This hand powered co-star is operated by a Great Helmsman/stagehand and is the handiwork of scenic designer Efren Delgadillo, Jr., a CalArts alumnus.

This wheel of misfortune, which has layers of inner meaning according to director Travis Preston, Dean of the CalArts School of Theater and CNP artistic director, is essential to, literally, moving this drama forward. Unlike in Agamemnon — the first play in Aeschylus’ The Oresteia trilogy, which was presented at the Getty Villa in 2008 co-starring Tyne Daly and Delroy Lindo — in Prometheus Bound the protagonist’s onstage movement is essentially static. To be sure, the playwright’s dialogue (newly translated here by Joel Agee, son of the Pulitzer Prize winning author James Agee) remains among theater’s most powerful, but how to deliver these lines without boring the audience to tears in a motionless drama? By delving, literally, into their wheelhouse, this production’s creators have brilliantly solved that problem, by allowing the hero, crucified as he is to a rock face, to nevertheless move, although he remains tethered.

The Greek chorus (which had essentially been banished from the 2011 Getty Villa modern dress version of Euripides’ The Trojan Women) makes a triumphant return here in full force, with 12 multi-culti Amazonian actresses. Along with the wheel, the chorus’ choreo by choreographer Mira Kingsley helps to dispel the static sensibility that a lesser rendition might have bestowed. The dozen women dance, prance and move in the aisles and on the stage of the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, which is bare except for that sphere, which is to wheels what the Colossus of Rhodes was to ancient statues. And to further enhance the mobility of the play’s mise-en-scène, using mountain climbing-type gear the chorus’ 12 thespians scale and straddle the wheel, including in a scene of solidarity redolent of the grand finale of the 1960 anti-Roman slave revolt epic Spartacus written by ex-Communist Dalton Trumbo, wherein the exultant rebels defiantly declare: “I’m Spartacus!”

prometheus bound

Ron Cephas Jones and Mirjana Jokovic

Prometheus was a sort of Che Guevara of antiquity, the personification of eternal resistance to tyranny. Recently, we have been awash with stirring tributes to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with imagery of Dr. Martin Luther King and company resurrected to gladden our hearts with golden memories of those noble heroes who fought the good fight against racism, oppression and injustice, for the “beloved community” of liberation. In a canny bit of casting that may or may not be merely coincidental, the Getty Villa has given us a Black Prometheus in the person of Ron Cephas Jones, by importing the New York-based thespian for his L.A. theater premiere. Jones has a strong background in the Shakespearian stage and has also appeared in the new AMC cable TV series Low Winter Sun and the TV movie version of A Raisin in the Sun, plus he has appeared in movies including Woody Allen’s 1999 Sweet and Lowdown and 2007’s Across the Universe as, tellingly, a Black Panther.

The righteous rage Jones roars as the Promethean champion of  downtrodden humanity is relevant for our own age of mass uprisings unfolding around the world, from the Arab Spring to Spain’s los Indignados to Greeks fighting in the streets against austerity to our homegrown Occupy Wall Street and beyond. Jones gives voice to       the wretched of the Earth and to the eternal spirit of defiance to tyranny by a struggling humanity fighting for liberation in a tremendously moving performance and production. Jones doesn’t merely speak truth to power: He thunders it.

One of L.A.’s preeminent playwrights, Donald Freed, contends that there was a direct connection between Greek theater and democracy. Of course, like our own blemished version of it, Greece’s democracy also included slavery, so it’s no wonder that the theme of revolution rears its heroic head in Greek plays. Indeed, Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae (Women in Parliament) is a comedy about a communist revolution led by women and written in 392 B.C. — a mere 2,240 years before Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto.

There are too many actors in this ensemble of 18-ish Preston so ably directs to be able to single them all out. But in addition to Jones, who does yeoman’s work from his perch, I’d be remiss not to mention Joseph Kamal as the steadfastly loyal Okeanos; Tony Sancho as the conflicted Hephaistos; and Belgrade-born Mirjana Jokovic as Io, the priestess of Hera, who is described as wearing horns (alas, from a distance in the amphitheater seats, her hair-do looks a tad like Mouseketeer ears and might be more at home in an Aristophanes farce, although her acting is surely Aeschylean). In terms of the chorus, Kalean Ung, fresh from playing the title role in The Theatre @ Boston Court’s production of Alcestis, returns to Greek theater with zest and flair. She seemed to intensely incarnate her role with expressive beauty, dancing and climbing up that wheel along with the rest of her mountaineers.

Delgadillo’s circular contraption is, to be sure, a co-star, as is the backdrop of the Getty Villa’s Greco-Roman architecture. Perched upon Malibu bluffs above the Pacific, the Fleischman Theater’s 500 seat glorious amphitheater, which is “based on ancient prototypes” according to program notes, is an ideal place to see Greek tragedy — under the stars, just as Grecian audiences did in 450 B.C.

And how did antiquity’s ticket buyers react to Aeschylus’ drama, which daringly took the paramount god in their pantheon of Olympian deities to task? Somewhat more recently Danish cartoonists who had the nerve to depict and/or mock the prophet Mohammed ignited controversy, just as portrayals of Jesus, Yahweh, etc., have. It’s Greek to me how Athenians responded to Aeschylus’ “blasphemy,” but those interested in finding out more should attend classicist Mark Griffith’s free lecture, “Defying Zeus to Help Humans: What Was Prometheus Thinking?” 2:00 p.m., Sept. 21, 2013 at the Getty Villa’s Auditorium.

Ed RampellBut before doing so, have the foresight not to miss the thought provoking Prometheus Bound, a tragedy challenging authority and authoritarianism that remains as revolutionary today as it was almost 5,000 years ago. This avid theatergoer is already strapping on his sandals in anticipation of seeing the Getty Villa’s presentation of Aeschylus’ The Persians in September 2014. In the meantime, mark my words: The Promethean spirit of revolt is coming soon to a theater near you!

Prometheus Bound plays through Sept. 28 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. For more info: (310) 440-7300; www.getty.edu.

Ed-schylus Rampell

About Ed Rampell

Film historian and reviewer Ed Rampell’s interview with legendary Greek director Costa-Gavras is in the September issue of The Progressive Magazine. Rampell is the co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, to be released by Honolulu’s Mutual Publishing in October 2013.

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