Play With Fire
Prophecy’s not so difficult when both gods and mortals are so predictable. Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and its lessons play on a 2,500-year loop until they’re actually listened to; a kind of closed-circuit surveillance whose creators knew they could afford to tape and walk away from. The only god who could do something isn’t watching, and the only one who cares can do nothing; for creating humans and favoring them over his own kind, Prometheus is ordered by Zeus to be chained for eternity and tortured daily, but the real sentence is his inability to die and the true punishment is his inability to ever look away. The beings he formed from clay are blessed with finite lives and doomed to disappoint him, but a parent’s love is to respect his children’s choices and thereby give them chances.
Or more precisely, her children; Prometheus as portrayed here is, like other redeemer figures such as Jesus, essentially maternal (and played here by a woman); not for nothing is Zeus’ title of “father” the most repeated term for him, consuming and condemning his young in contrast to Prometheus’ commitment to what and who comes after. Like the climatic and tectonic cataclysms Hermes at one point warns are to be brought down upon her, Prometheus understands that the patient inevitability of nature will topple or wear down every mountain and tower; she has defied the all-powerful, but is alone in deferring to destiny. The prophetic threat she taunts Zeus with, that a woman lives somewhere whose son by him will surpass and overthrow him, is really the inescapability of nature’s cycle itself, a feminine principle for which Zeus has no comprehension or counter. Visited by the water nymphs who still sympathize, a fellow Titan who beseeches her to repent, and a young god who threatens and interrogates, Prometheus seems the actual monarch, chained to her throne but courted by everyone who seeks to understand, her mind the only fully free one.
Created under constraints, this production (the premier of an adaptation by Howard Rubenstein, who died not long before it debuted) invokes the verité mysticism that ancient Greek audiences likely felt; we can tell we are in the cave-like setting of an empty theatre, but we are entranced by the suggestions of the supernatural. The play was filmed live and cinematically remixed; dreamlike cutaways to taped segments, eerie overdubs of real-time singing, vintage-magician appearances and vanishings convey the closely-woven wonder that COVID drove the resourceful creative collaborators to. The configuring of the action mostly as a storytelling circle captures the campfire origins of narrative, as first lit by Prometheus’ gift, and director Ran Xia, surprisingly a first-time filmmaker, converts the compelling focus of her small-ensemble stage plays to an intimate immediacy that pulls us right into the circle too.
As Prometheus, Brenda Crawley is a particularly sage and gravitational presence, towering in integrity and spellbinding in eccentric insight. Olivia Rose Barresi also stands out as Hermes, embodying the god of speed’s quick wit and racing thoughts with a novel, urbane mania. Rubenstein’s text is, like all the worthwhile translations of ancient drama, expert at drawing out the admonitions still calling for our attention; Prometheus’ remark to a not-imprisoned ally that “The fortunate are always ready to give advice to the unfortunate” should be gospel for every advantage-splainer now alive, and when Io, resisting the king of gods’ unwelcome advances, is told, “You set the heart of Zeus on fire, and filled him with desire,” we could be listening to the enabling voice in Robert Aaron Long’s misshapen head. The day we recognize what we’re hearing will be the day — or year, or century — that Prometheus’ chains can finally fall away.
This premier production runs until April 11, 2021; details and tickets at: https://thetanknyc.org/prometheusbound
[Pix (top to bottom): Crawley; the Chorus; Crawley & Barresi; assorted Nymphs]