How hard is it to make the story of a god bound to a rock for eternity compelling? It ain’t easy, but Tony-nominated director Diane Paulus, Tony-winning playwright/lyricist Steven Sater and Grammy-winning rocker/composer Serj Tankian pulled it off (and made it rock) at the official premiere of Prometheus Bound at Oberon on Friday night in Boston. They even had some fans pumping their fists during the defiant penultimate number.
With a hard rocking band working it onstage, and actors performing all around the square theater — from a rolling dais in the center of the audience to the bar in the back to the catwalk above — the intense rock musical sonically spanned ambient drones to hard rock to acoustic, jazzy hip-hop (no, I’m not kidding) to tell the tale of Prometheus, the Greek god who gave mortals the gift of fire and language and invoked the wrath of Zeus, who had him chained to a rock to be tormented for all eternity. During his incarceration various gods and mortals come to visit him; the former to taunt him or break his will, the latter to commiserate with his terrible fate. Io, a mortal woman deity raped by Zeus then turned into a cow and perennially tormented by a stinging gadfly, seeks knowledge of her future. Three Daughters of the Aether offer a Greek chorus of despair for our tortured protagonist, who refuses to apologize to Zeus nor offer him the doomed vision of the future he knows will befall the godly king. When I interviewed him and Tankian for Stage Directions the day before, Sater told me he thought that Prometheus was the first “prisoner of conscience,” and that slant certainly helps make this rendition of Aeschylus’ 2,500 year-old tale quite contemporary.
If this production had been staged with Prometheus sequestered at center stage throughout the whole show, it would not have worked, but by cleverly blocking the action all around and within the audience, Paulus created a sense of motion and urgency that propelled the story and made it more fun and engaging. Often times the “groupies” (i.e. stagehands) moved attendees out of the way as the “ladder of the gods” and Prometheus’ “rock” (i.e. the rolling platform to which a chain was lowered from the ceiling) were wheeled around the floor, and occasionally the Daughters of the Aether were carried to three strategically placed ladders to preside over the audience as they interacted with Prometheus. By having a dialogue between actors placed in different parts of the venue, often 50 feet apart, the audience had to tilt their heads or turn around and keep an active vigil on the action. (Sometimes one could peer out of the corner of their eye to view some characters silently watching the action under minimal lighting.) This approach kept one distracted from the fact that they were standing throughout the whole production. But at 75 minutes, the running time was just right.
The cast is quite strong, including the compelling Gavin Creel (who co-starred as the doomed Claude in the recent revival of Hair on Broadway) as Prometheus and the electric Uzo Aduba as the anguished Io. Everyone seemed right for their roles. The diverse musical score, for which the above description might make it sound quite divergent, clicked. Serj Tankian fans coming to the show and expecting consistently heavy rock will be disappointed; those who appreciate his eclectism will be elated. There were even a few moments of actual actor headbanging, and “With Your Fingers Pale and Numb” was furiously charged and worked people into a frenzy.
Following the show, the cast, band and creators stepped on stage to a strong ovation, and actor Gabriel Ebert (who plays Hephaistos/Hermes) told everyone that specific performances will be dedicated to a different prisoner of conscience which Amnesty International is campaigning to have released from jail in whichever country they are living. Friday’s performance was dedicated to internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was imprisoned last December in his home country. Volunteers collected postcards signed by attendees who demanded Panahi’s release.
Prometheus Bound plays at Oberon in Cambridge, Massachusetts until April 2, 2011. A cast album has been discussed, but nothing has been planned. Sater, Paulus and Tankian want to see how the show fares and whether it might make it to New York. Here’s hoping it does. Looking into the future in a different way, I’m thinking that if this theatrical triumvirate ever decides to do a heavy metal opera, they could use Tankian’s “Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition” as a starting point. Seriously.
Scroll down further for photo coverage of the opening night party.