'Prometheus Bound' a Lucid Exploration of Tyranny

A.R.T. production updates Aeschylus’ text with themes of human rights, freedom, and hard rock music

The team behind “Prometheus Bound,” the new rock musical that runs through April 2 at the American Repertory Theater’s (A.R.T.) OBERON, seems to have embraced the one quality that could have led to the downfall of the show. Advertisements for the show announce “a damned god in chains,” referring to Prometheus’s confinement throughout the production. A stagnant protagonist—Prometheus is bound by ropes and chains the entire show—should be deadly onstage; yet “Prometheus Bound” pulses with energy and rebellious spirit. Director Diane M. Paulus ’87 brings dynamism and contemporary resonance to the 2,500-year-old Greek play by Aeschylus. Her modern interpretation has its faults, but remains consistently engaging.

“Prometheus Bound” throws the audience into the myth of Prometheus (Gavin Creel) mid-story, picking up as new divine ruler Zeus is punishing the Titan for introducing fire to mankind. What follows is essentially a series of encounters between Prometheus and other figures from Greek mythology as they discuss tyrannical rule and maintaining convictions in the face of oppression.

Such plays of ideas and speechifying do not often make for compelling theatrical experiences—but add some rock music, and the vignettes come to life. Librettist and lyricist Steven Sater’s translation of Aeschylus’s script is crisp and elegant—and keeps the show moving at a rapid pace—but Sater finds his greatest poetry in the lyrics. Like in “Spring Awakening,” the recent Tony Award-winning musical for which Sater also wrote the book and lyrics, the songs represent a Brechtian break in which mood and emotion, rather than plot, are explored.

The device works well for the episodic “Prometheus.” It also allows Sater to craft many poignant sequences in the midst of profound debate. The most moving of these is the story of Io (the heartrending Uzo Aduba), a maiden seduced by Zeus and condemned to live as a cow followed by a stinging gadfly. In this production Io is interpreted as a victim of sexual abuse, and her introductory song “The Hunger” reveals her pain with piercing anguish. “He robbed your body on the way, but that’s the way we lose our fucking minds. A wall of names we leave behind, and no one knows the longing or the shame, all the ‘sorry, sorry, sorry babes,’ and so it’s over,” she sings.

Unfortunately, such striking lyrics are often lost under the pounding rhythm and volume of composer Serj Tankian’s music, which robs several moments—including Io’s tale—of both power and clarity. Sater’s translation also sacrifices depth for concision at times. He maintains the musical’s momentum but loses crucial minutiae in the process.

Emily Rebholz’s costume design further detracts from the show’s comprehensibility and confuses what is already quite an abstract story. While the combat boots, skinny jeans, and punk accessories the cast sports certainly fit the show’s anarchic vibe—and, admittedly, look pretty cool—they do nothing to clarify character. Io’s plain white linen dress is perhaps the most egregious example; the only nod to her mythological fate is a few pieces of hay stuck haphazardly in her hair. Aduba’s characterization, however, gets across the torment this abuse has wrought.

Still, much of the credit for the show’s power is owed to Creel, who portrays the eponymous prisoner of conscience with passion and defiance. Any time his performance verges on turning one-note, he starts to sing—and suddenly, his Prometheus is electric. By rearranging Creel’s bindings around OBERON periodically, Paulus also frees the Titan to keep his physical performance from growing stale, and it works; none of Zeus’ henchmen match Creel’s onstage presence.

Creel is a defiant rocker in a growing mosh pit lit stunningly by Kevin Adams. Adams has proven himself a master of creating a rock-concert atmosphere—lighting such Broadway productions as “Spring Awakening,” 2008’s “Passing Strange,” and last year’s “American Idiot” to brilliant effect—and “Prometheus” is no exception. Adams’s vivid blend of color and strobes pulsates with Tankian’s rock music and easily matches Creel in fervor.

This music seamlessly suits Prometheus’s bold and insubordinate attitude. Songs like “Total Paranoia” and “What I Think of Myself” prove rousing anthems, while the entrance of the Daughters of the Aether (Jo Lampert, Celina Carvajal, and Ashley Flanagan) with “The Earth Cries Out” is eerily beautiful. Nonetheless, there are a few missteps—namely, the folksy frame song and a number involving beatboxing and scatting.

Yet, these problems do not diminish the overall force of the show. The A.R.T. has even partnered with Amnesty International to dedicate each performance to freeing a prisoner of conscience, an inspired move that illustrates only more strongly how germane the themes of “Prometheus” are to today’s society. While the details might be muddled, the ultimate message about resistance to oppression comes through with absolute lucidity.

—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at aleskow@fas.harvard.edu.

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