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Questioning Authority in Ah, Wilderness! and Prometheus Bound 

Thursday, Sep 19 2013
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In his program note to his elegant and fervent staging of the 5th-century Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound director Travis Preston writes, "The dramaturgy of Prometheus Bound asks us to question common assumptions of theater practice — assumptions related to individual psychology, personality, and the nature of human motivation and identity. This exceptional play urges investigation of other pathways," which Preston goes on to describe as "communal identity, gestural power and the iconic."

That's all well and good, but his production — al fresco at the Getty Villa through September and presented by CalArts Center for New Performance — also demonstrates quite the opposite. Classical, individual psychology lies at the heart of this impressive production, alongside personality and the nature of human motivation and identity.

This approach starts with the play itself. (Its common attribution to Aeschylus has come under growing scholarly scrutiny of late, which would explain why CalArts has left the original author's name off its program.) The play is certainly primal, but that doesn't make it any less psychological than Oedipus the King, Antigone or The Trojan Women. Its crux is the lament of one demigod, the eponymous Titan, sentenced by Zeus to be pinned to a rock for eternity — or until he's rescued — for the crime of helping mortals by giving them fire and knowledge.

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The irony is that Zeus is a comparative newcomer to the firmament, helped to his throne by Prometheus. But gratitude doesn't go far in ancient Greece. When Zeus feels he's been crossed, even by his former ally, the punishment he orders is merciless, and slightly capricious.

So the crux of the play, in a resonant translation by Joel Agee, is Prometheus railing against his punishment and against the arbitrary tyranny of Zeus, a god so nervous about his newly acquired seat at the head of the table that he acts like, well, a tyrant — or so it's reported by Prometheus and confirmed by various visitors to his rock, since Zeus never puts in a personal appearance out there in exile.

Zeus also has defenders, including Kratos (the marvelous Adam Haas Hunter) and Zeus' messenger Hermes (Michael Blackman).

Hephaistos (Tony Sancho) regretfully pins Prometheus to his fate by slamming a hammer onto what looks like a foot-high, resonating, flat copper surface, which stands at least a yard away from Prometheus. Herein lies the essence of Preston's approach, which uses physical distance to abstract what could have been a realistic depiction. This certainly gives his production a simple though epic grandeur, complemented by Vinny Golia and Ellen Reid's original music, performed live, and a 12-member female chorus that chants and sings in choreographed unity.

This is all very stylish, but it doesn't in any way diminish the play's psychological underpinnings, nor its focus on individual personalities and characters, despite what Preston asserts.

Meanwhile, stern Kratos rebukes Hephaistos for feeling pity for Prometheus. It's perhaps the earliest dramatization of the quality of mercy, though it's also the earliest dramatization of just about anything, being from one of the earliest texts ever found.

Prometheus has a mouth on him, and so does actor Ron Cephas Jones in the title role. Okeanos (Bernard K. Addison at the performance reviewed) counsels him to keep it down, fearing that Prometheus' belligerent, megaphoned complaints will only inflame Zeus. Io (Mirjana Jakovic) also swings by, eager to learn from Prometheus' gift of prophecy.

Efren Delgadillo Jr.'s set centers on the much-discussed 23-foot-tall, 5-ton revolving metal wheel. The contraption stands center-stage like a giant wagon wheel and contains a micro-wheel near its perimeter, onto which Prometheus is bound. When a mechanic on the ground turns what looks like the circular valve of a water main, it sends the micro-wheel sliding up the perimeter of the larger wheel in a circular rotation along the edge of this mechanical solar system. And so, through the course of the play, Prometheus orbits like a fiery planet circling a sun.

In this way, the production depicts the mechanics of the constellations, as well as the mechanics of politics that underlie them. The image of Prometheus revolving underscores this production's core idea of revolution, raising the eternal, unanswerable quandaries of what can be countenanced and what can't when authority is challenged. And if the impulses behind rebellion and revolution don't start with psychology, of nervous entities clinging to their fragile power, then nothing does.

It would be platitudinous to draw contemporary parallels to current world events. That they can be drawn so easily is a testament to the play's eternal beauty and to the production's relevance.

Eugene O'Neill's 1936 comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, set like a Norman Rockwell portrait in 1906 Connecticut, takes a considerably lighter view of rebellion against authority. In this case, a love-smitten, heartbroken teenage boy (terrific performance by Nicholas Podany) commits the atrocity of fleeing the house one night, visiting a brothel (in which almost nothing happens) and returning home staggering drunk.

His newspaper editor father (Phil Cromley, pleasingly bewildered and struggling to possess some of Zeus' confidence) must determine how his son is to be punished. Being a Valentine to family rather than an excoriation of it, father and son are able to negotiate the terms of punishment. The kid will not be pinned to a rock and left out in the Connecticut sun. Rather, Dad says that he'll forbid his son from going to Yale, which his priggish, pipe-smoking brother (Patrick Lawrie) is already attending. Nothing could please Richard more. That way he can go to work and marry the girl of his dreams (the charming Melody Hollis) much sooner than he thought.

Realizing his son is far too delighted with that plan, Dad determines that the most appropriate punishment is to send him to Yale after all — "and you're going to graduate!" Richard is crestfallen.

This is the same family that, in O'Neill's later play Long Day's Journey Into Night, will take a very different turn. In this earlier play, boozing and addiction crop up in comedic rather than tragic turns (particularly by the resident alcoholic played by Townsend Coleman).

Thom Babbes directs an ornate, delightfully intimate production, with loving period detail given to the setting (by Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer) and costumes (by Shon LeBlanc).

When Ah, Wilderness! becomes Long Day's Journey, O'Neill's connection to the ancient Greeks becomes more apparent. Misery, rebellion against authority, cycles of addiction and revenge, addiction to revenge. It all started with the plight of Prometheus, and it still hasn't let up.

PROMETHEUS BOUND | A new translation by Joel Agee of a play disputedly attributed to Aeschylus | Presented by CalArts Center for New Performance at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu | Mon. & Wed.-Sun., through Sept. 28 | (310) 440-7300 | getty.edu

AH, WILDERNESS! | By Eugene O'Neill | Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through Oct. 13 | (323) 462-7300 | actorsco-op.org

Correction: This review initially misspelled a director's name. The correct spelling is Thom Babbes.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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