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At the origin of our world, one lone immortal—the first radical, the first revolutionary, the first savior—dares to defy the king of the gods, risking eternal torture and unending incarceration to rescue humankind from annihilation utter and complete.
That’s a logline that could belong to the next megabudget studio extravaganza or cable fantasy series. Rather, it’s the calling card for Prometheus, the chiseled ab’d Titan in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gifted it to humanity, thereby becoming the Bringer of Light and enlightened civilizer to a benighted species (us!).
Prometheus also serves as the protagonist in Prometheus Bound, the fifth century BCE Greek tragedy, commonly credited to Aeschylus, firing afresh as the eighth annual outdoor theater production at The Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. A collaboration between The J. Paul Getty Museum and CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP), Prometheus has further managed, somewhat paradoxically in a town that worships the new, to become the most of-the-moment staged event in Los Angeles.
What has made the production so combustible? The play’s decorated director, Travis Preston (a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters as well as the artistic director of the CalArts Center for New Performance, the “professional producing arm” of California Institute of the Arts, and dean of the CalArts School of Theater) attributes its power to the piece itself, which is “rich and dense and one of the great pillars of theater and dramatic history,” and which like all the classics, Aeschylus to Shakespeare, underscores the universality of the human experience.
For Preston, Prometheus Bound is also uniquely suited to audiences today. “It inspires a complex relationship in the contemporary mind: We recognize both the necessity of the revolt and the terrible price paid for that revolt,” says the director, who’s ruminated over this compelling and painful pairing since he was 25 years old, fresh out of Yale School of Drama and helming his first professional production in then-communist Poland. “A radical tied to a rock by a tyrant—and they [the authorities] approved it!” he laughs, his point that when context and a classic meet, fireworks explode in the craniums of the audience: “If you really engage these works, they invigorate [your] relationship with modernity and open doors in a contemporary perspective.”
Toward that aim, the scope of novelty associated with this particular Prometheus Bound appears, well, boundless. The music, by composer Ellen Reid and jazz multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia (who also performs live onstage and whom Preston calls a singular voice in American music), is original. The production, a first between The Getty and CalArts’ CNP for the outdoor theater, is original. And the translation of the famously beautiful but notoriously tricky text by the oft-awarded writer Joel Agee? Original. “The challenge for me was one of engaging with this great tragic poem on its own terms and finding resources in my own language to mirror its moral power and formal beauty,” notes Agee.
Then there is the engaging originality of the production itself, which had to contend with two major challenges regarding staging and set design. “Unlike many Greek dramas placed before a palace, which lend themselves very well to the Villa’s outdoor theater, the environment of Prometheus is a barren wasteland, the edge of civilization—literally and metaphorically,” says Preston, adding that the play also risks an inherently static quality: its protagonist being chained to a rock.
Preston’s inspired if audacious solution, which he executed in conjunction with scenic designer Efren Delgadillo Jr., was a 23-foot-tall, 5.5-ton steel wheel, a circle within a circle to which Prometheus is chained and upon which the 12-member chorus ascend and descend.
It’s a design that allows a tethered Prometheus to appear to move, or rather to be moved, within the confines of the larger circle—a shape cross-culturally rich in iconography that conjures the Wheel of Dharma, the Catherine Wheel, the signs of the zodiac, eternal life, and, adds Preston, the famous astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square. It’s also a design that Ron Cephas Jones, the actor who plays Prometheus, calls the production’s greatest challenge.
“The wheel is a massive mechanical object of the 20th century, and in relationship to it, the human being seems quite fragile,” says Preston, explaining that the wheel, in turn, raises the question of transience and fragility on the broadest level, one that extends to Prometheus’s greatest legacy, civilization itself.
Heavy stuff. And Hollywood-big. But while Prometheus Bound underscores that suffering is an enduring component of human existence, “so is hope, which is manifested through the entire piece,” Preston says.
So might the chorus then close, incanting the wisdom imparted by contemporary titan Tina Turner: “Big wheel keep on turning…”
Prometheus Bound runs Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, September 5–28 at the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at The Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, 310-440-7300