Thursday, September 5, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Tower of Circles" (on Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound)

tower of circles
by Douglas Messerli
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound (translated into English by Joel Agee) / the production I saw was on the evening of September 3, 2013 at The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Villa, directed by Travis Preston and performed with the help of the CalArts Center for New Performance.

Generally attributed to Aeschylus, and the first of what was probably a trilogy (Promethus Bound, Prometheus Unbound, and Prometheus Firebearer) Prometheus Bound is one of the earliest of Western works for theater, and has been highly influential in Western thought since its creation. Yet, it is also a play filled with difficulties, particularly for our own time. Like Wagner’s Norse and German-inspired mythologies, Prometheus Bound is filled with sometimes arcane information and the complexly interlinking relationships between Greek gods and the humans the gods have encountered. For the contemporary English-language playgoer, the play’s intensive reliance on a Greek female chorus who chant our their condemnations, sympathies, and prayers for the great Titan, can sound, at times, almost comical, their shrill, wailing chants spinning out into almost meaningless orisons. And what can a contemporary director do to stimulate an audience who for more than an hour are bombarded by the voice of one being, telling his story, sharing his suffering, and predicting his and other’s futures, while all the time chained at the edge of a desolate cliff? How even to explain Prometheus’ brief encounters with various messengers of Zeus—Hermes, Kratos, Okeanos, and Hephaistos—and the almost inexplicable, stumbling in of Io, who Zeus’ wife Hera has turned into a cow, tormenting her with a magic stinging insects—even though she may later father Prometheus’ eventual savior Heracles? Just as in long stretches of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, in Aeschylus’ work there is often not much going on in terms of action.

      And finally, the very fact that this work is only the first of three parts, makes for a sense of this first being a fragmentary episode. Although Prometheus foretells his and also our futures, we can never be certain that he really does have the ability to see what he claims to, and others throughout the work scold him for not simply suffering in quietude to ameliorate the wrath of Zeus.

     But it is just that Prometheus can and does speak, that he refuses silence and denies Zeus’ unfair punishment for helping mankind survive, in particular,  stealing for them the power of fire, that we do care for this Titan, that we comprehend him, as Ralph Waldo Emerson described Prometheus, as “the Jesus of the old mythology”—again reminding us of Wagner’s Brünnhilde, who also was punished for intruding herself upon mankind, and, like Prometheus, was punished to remain in isolation, in her case surrounded by a ring of fire, for a seeming eternity before she is freed. If, at the center of this sometimes static work, lay radical ideas about the fight against tyranny, positing in Prometheus a hero willing to help the human race and ultimately end the reign of the gods, how can a director steer a course to successfully get to that point?

      Fortunately, seasoned director Travis Preston has saved his hero from shouting out his lines from linear rock, raising him to a vertical circularity that equates him more with Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Simultaneously speaking from his towering heights, the Prometheus of this production remains a Titan, while also suggesting a Christ upon the cross. He is, in short, one of us, and something beyond us, willing to suffer the eagles’ daily clawing and swallowing of his liver, in order to deny Zeus any pleasure in his punishment. Within the very stage set (the construction by Efrem Delgadillo, Jr.) we see both a continuity of time, a circle within the larger circle, the smaller bringing our hero through his daily sufferings, and the larger, a circle of community, a symbol of Prometheus’ embracement of the human race.

     The chorus, appropriately, not only speaks to him, but crawls up to join him in their shared sufferings. If there is sometimes something almost comical about their efforts, so too are any mortals’ efforts to communicate with the gods.

      Of course, even this striking visualization of Prometheus’ position would mean nothing if Preston had not found an actor who might be able to live up to the position in which he has put him. Ron Cephas Jones not only has the taut, skin-and-bones body that encapsulates the Titan’s suffering, but his basso voice booms out his thespian skills quite brilliantly—in near perfect opposition for what I previously described as the chorus’ more soprano efforts. Bound for the entire play, unable to move by himself, he nonetheless seems almost in control of the busy choreography (by Mira Kingsley) of the chorus, sometimes wrestling with each, and other times circling in a round dance that might almost remind one of Stravinsky’s pagan ritual in Rite of Spring.

      And finally, the music (by Vinny Golia and Ellen Reid), heavy on percussion, creates through its jazz intonations a sense of tortured coolness that reiterates the extremes of Prometheus’ emotional outpourings.

      If at moments all these elements—direction, acting, choreography, and music—momentarily slide into a kind of repetitiveness or even stasis that might make us fear that the difficulties of this tragic work might have, after all, won out—overall there is enough excitement in this production that the plays’ revelations brilliantly dominate. And even though the work ends, predictably, in utter despair, we can believe that one day the eagle will be shot, the Titan rescued, mankind freed from the caprices of the gods: Prometheus not only unbound but redeemed.

Los Angeles, September 4, 2013