Critics are raving about “Prometheus Bound” at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, but I would have rolled that big metal wheel – five tons and 23 feet tall – straight down the hill and into the sea and then replaced it with a big spider web, in which I’d dangle a couple of human skeletons from the corners with a rubble of bones down below. Instead of straitjacketing Prometheus (Ron Cephas Jones) so that he can’t move his arms, I’d have encouraged him to flail a little. I’d have live birds in cages so that the audience would constantly be reminded of what’s in store – liver pâté – and periodically I’d have a large shadow loom up and pass over the web: Vulcan’s vulture is on its way.
I’m kidding, of course, but as nicely rendered as this production is – by way of Cal Arts Center for New Performance in association with Trans Arts – it’s a bit dull. I realize that “Prometheus Bound,” formerly ascribed to Aeschylus and now doubtfully, isn’t quite Laurel and Hardy, but director Travis Preston could have watched last year’s “Helen” and the Culture Clash version of “Peace” a few more times on DVD to get a sense of what really engages an audience.
To his credit, however, Preston wanted to place the audience on the “stage” and set the action among the tiers of seats that comprise the outdoor amphitheater. He was told that was not possible.
I guess you know the basic story. Prometheus is a Titan who pilfers fire from the gods and hands it over to Mankind and Zeus is mightily upset because he knows that a few thousand years hence we’ll be firebombing Dresden and Tokyo and can we nip that in the bud right now? And so he calls on Hermes: Hey, chain that upstart to a cliff somewhere on Mount Caucasus. While you’re at it, have a vulture… and so on.
Beautifully translated for modern day comprehension by Joel Agee, son of James, the play tilts heavily towards spoken word and poetry and less towards dramatic action. Jones is vocally convincing, and he declaims nobly like the martyred prophet and dissident that he is, but he can’t squirm like a lizard on a hot grill. He’s also not very meaty. Prometheus should have a muscular physique; he should resemble the agonized figure as painted in 1611 by Franz Snyders and Peter Paul Rubens. Now, that’s Prometheus.
What is called for (well, in my playbook) is something organic, and perhaps the twelve young women who form the chorus (the daughters of Okeanos) are here to fulfill that role. Everything they say, every gesture, is done in synchronous harmony, and the rehearsal time is clearly evident, but a dozen voices going at once is often a blur, and the stylization may even seem forced. The costumes send mixed signals, partly because it looks like the women have handcuffs and belts hanging at their sides (cops, or telephone repairmen?). These items, however, are hooks and straps that help secure each bearer to the wheel, which the women climb on a couple of times. One remembers the soft clinks of metal on metal as they shackle and unshackle themselves. It’s an impressive sight, kind of. For a few moments anyway.
The percussive-oriented score, composed by Vinny Golla and Ellen Reid, performed by Golla and bassist Chris Lopes, underlies the tension, but is best in conservative doses when it dances around the edges.
All in all, though, despite being intelligently designed and presented, the abstract and theoretical have outnumbered the emotional and the visceral. A staged reading would have been almost as lively. The work can be applauded on my levels (be my guest), but at least one person sitting under the stars didn’t find it engaging.
Prometheus Bound is being performed Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Sept. 28 in the Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades. Tickets, $42 general; $38 students, seniors. Dinners are available, and the outdoor setting is superb. Next September: The Persians, by Aeschylus, directed by Anne Bogart, performed by SITI Company. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER