The American Repertory Theater’s Artistic Director Diane Paulus has a clear and Promethean vision for using the A.R.T.’s second performance space, The OBERON, to “expand the boundaries of theater by creating whole new relationships between performers and audiences.” Paulus, in seeking to give the gift of a new kind of theatrical fire to mortals, is now presenting the new musical, “Prometheus Bound.” Like the ancient fire-giver, the mythical titan Prometheus, Paulus’ largesse has not been met with universal praise and approbation. Some of the gods of Boston and Cambridge’s traditional theater scene have sought to chain up her new vision and limit her reach. She soldiers on, and last night’s opening of “Prometheus Bound” offers strong evidence that she is on the right track. My enthusiasm for this new work is “unbounded”!
My evening at the OBERON began fortuitously as I sat reading the program notes from the Director, Writer and Composer. The lyrics and book for “Prometheus” have been written by Tony and Grammy award winner, Steven Sater. He is perhaps best known for having written the Broadway smash hit “Spring Awakening.” I was warmed when I read this quotation in his notes: “Twenty-five hundred years after Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound was first performed, it remains astonishing that the play was ever staged at all. For, this towering work is perhaps the most searing indictment of tyranny ever written. And it was written, and staged before the entire body politic of Athens, at the rose-fingered dawn of Western democracy.”
Upon reading these words, with their explicit praise of Aeschylus and an implicit wink and nod to Homer, I knew that Sater had been moved to treat the ancient material with reverence, even while partnering with Diane Paulus and Serj Tankian to wrap the ancient bones in a new and vibrant musical cocoon. Then I looked up from my program and saw that Steven Sater was standing only a few feet in front of me, I was able to thank him for his words.
The lights went down and the OBERON came alive. The space, according to Paulus’ vision, has become almost an additional character for each show that it houses. Its multiple levels of practical space - its balconies, mezzanines, stage and open floor - allow the director and choreographer maximum flexibility to set the fast-moving action amidst an audience that can reach out and touch – and be touched by – the performers. Never was this space more fully or beautifully utilized than in last night’s opening of "Prometheus Bound." Every nook and cranny of the house was occupied by actors and lit up to spectacular effect. The lighting design, by multiple Tony award winner, Kevin Adams, created a visual beauty throughout the show that was mesmerizing. Prometheus, when chained to the central podium, was illuminated from below by a ghostly white light – a wondrous effect.
Serj Tankian was an interesting choice to compose the music for this work. As song writer and lead singer for the group “System of a Down,” his style is far from that of traditional Broadway fare. Yet his long history of social activism and fighting against many forms of tyranny made him a perfect choice to bring musical life to this tale. For me, his musical choices worked well. What struck me most powerfully was the wonderful contrast and juxtaposition between hard-charging, rough rock sounds from the band and lead singers, and the ethereal counterpoint offered by the wingèd trio of the Daughters of the Aether, an air-born Greek chorus, if you will. That combination of dark and light sounds created for me what I must call an “auditory chiaroscuro” effect that was magical.
The cast is marvelous without exception. Vocally, I was most moved by Gavin Creel as Prometheus, Michael Cunio as Oceanus, Uzo Aduba as Io, Gabe Ebert as Hephaistos/Hermes and the three Daughters of the Aether, played by Celina Carvajal, Ashley Flanagan and Jo Lampert.
Is the show perfect? Of course not; what show is? In gauging audience reactions during the party that followed the premiere performance, I listened to a group of actors deconstructing their experience with the play. One of them made the following observation: “As a concert, it worked for me perfectly. As a play, it almost succeeded. I would have appreciated more character development from the actors. They seemed to concentrate more on their singing than on their acting.” I would say that this is a fair criticism, and one that can often be applied to most opera performances. On the other hand, I heard another group of audience members, including a few young actors say: “I am obsessed with this show. I need the cast album NOW!!”
In creating this show, the team has tied the project to a larger vision and mission. They have created The Prometheus Project in collaboration with Amnesty International. During each of the eight weeks that the show will run, a different “prisoner of conscience” will be highlighted. The audience is asked to petition on behalf of this person. Last night, we were told about Jafar Pahahi, a filmmaker imprisoned in Iran for his anti-government filmmaking. In tying artistic expression to political activism, the creative team have ensured that everyone involved with the show – cast, crew and audience – have an opportunity to experience the three legs of the stool that Daniel Pink talks about in his book, “Drive,” as necessary to sustain intrinsic motivation to achieve excellence: “autonomy, mastery and tying your work to a larger purpose.”
I must share one additional memorable moment from my night at the OBERON. During the party, I had an opportunity to talk Serj Tankian and share with him my observations about the “auditory chiaroscuro” effect.
He replied: “It is interesting that you should say that. When I write music, I always try to insert elements in which very loud sections are followed by very quiet or even silent moments.”
I responded: “That must come from very deep within you – from your cultural background. I am aware of your Armenian heritage, and you just described some of the history of the Armenian people – periods of loud screaming followed by periods of enforced silence.”
“Wow, that is deep. Thank you for knowing the history of my people.”
And that is my most important take away from “Prometheus Bound.” In learning and remembering history – actual or mythical - we can be moved to act in changing the present and impacting the future in endeavors like The Prometheus Project.
I encourage you to see this show. Touch the fire. Unloose the chains.