nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
March 20, 2007
Prometheus Bound is an unwieldy chunk of a play. Written by Aeschylus 2,500 years ago, it tells the story of the aftermath of the war of the gods. Zeus overthrows his father Cronus and the other Titans, establishing himself as the Supreme King of Heaven. Prometheus, a Titan, switches sides and later outwits Zeus by taking pity on nascent mankind, whom Zeus has decided to wipe out.
A wildly rich figure in mythology and literature, Prometheus gives mankind language, art, crafts, agriculture, and most importantly, fire. For this insubordination, Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock to suffer unspeakable torments. Edith Hamilton calls Prometheus "the great rebel against injustice and the authority of power." He's part Superman, part Jesus Christ.
Never one to aim low, Aeschylus crams the future of mankind and the clash of immortals onto the stage. Those immortals can't be killed, but they sure can suffer. The fragmentary Prometheus Bound is by turns maddening, paradoxical and exhilarating—a Greek tragedy where no one dies.
Aquila Theatre Company's uneven production of this thorny play, presented by Classic Stage Company, does have an ace in the hole—British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo. As Prometheus, Oyelowo is stripped to a loincloth and chained to the ceiling for an hour and a half. Oyelowo stamps, grunts, twists, and declaims. His Prometheus is guileful, arrogant, self-pitying, and compassionate, often at the same time. He is an actor to watch. George Bartenieff, a fine character man, gives lovely cameos as the rueful, beaten-down Hephaestus, forced to imprison his comrade, and the wily Oceanus, who counsels Prometheus to soften his stance a bit. Paul Wills's beautifully stark set—chains and smoke—complements Mark Jonathan's harsh and solitary lights.
But the production, translated, and directed by James Kerr, has a lack of juice in the playing and tempos. Characters enter and either explain their point of view or tell their life story. Kerr does little to alleviate the intrinsically static qualities in the text. And while the director/translator wisely refrains from stuffing this ecstatic, primitive play into some post-modern interpretation, he hasn't exactly ramped up the conflict either.
An additional difficulty is the handling of Io. Another complex mythological figure, the virginal Io is pursued by Zeus and then transformed into a cow by his jealous wife, Hera. At her entrance, she's growing horns and tormented by gadflies as she flees across Asia. Like Prometheus, Io is suffering for the caprices of authority figures. She seeks comfort from the god, who calls on his gift of prophecy to foretell the happy destiny of her descendants. There's a lot of meat for an actress in this role. But Julie McNiven, a fine-featured, slender ingénue, delivers her long speeches in a halting monotone, which chops up the rhythms at a moment when the play needs to be hurtling to its conclusion. There are more problems with the chorus of ocean maidens. There is some singing, some dropping to the floor, a few screams, and some modern dance movements, but none of it moves things forward or illuminates.
If you're a fan of the Greeks, catch this. And if you're a fan of new actors on the rise, definitely catch this to see the charismatic David Oyelowo.