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A New Spin on 'Prometheus Bound'

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Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus; Mirjana Jokovic as Io carried by the Chorus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.

In Partnership with The Getty VillaThe Getty Villa's annual outdoor theater performance is part of an innovative theater program that enhances the visitor's experience of the ancient world.

"Prometheus Bound," produced by CalArts' Center for New Performance (CNP), in association with Trans Arts, is the eighth annual outdoor theater production in the Getty Villa's Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, September 5-28, 2013.

Suffering for art -- and the art of suffering -- both get a new spin in an avant-garde production of the ancient Greek drama, "Prometheus Bound." Actor Ron Cephas Jones performs while strapped to a small wheel orbiting the rim of a larger one: A five ton, 23-foot tall, revolving circular steel structure that could be a cross between a kinetic Richard Serra sculpture, the Santa Monica Ferris wheel and that large clock from which Harold Lloyd dangled in his classic silent film comedy, "Safety Last."

"I've never seen any performance where you have an actor pinned to a wheel for the whole production," said New York-based Jones of the 75-minute work running through September 28 at the Getty Villa in a conversation on the museum's verdant grounds.

"That's what excites me," added the thespian equally adept at performing a range of Shakespearean roles, including the title one in "Richard III," for the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, as he is at playing the recurring character Reverend Lowdown in the new AMC crime drama, "Low Winter Sun."

Presented by the CalArts Center for New Performance in association with Trans Arts and the Getty Museum, "Prometheus Bound," is directed by Travis Preston, dean of CalArts' School of Theater and artistic director of CNP, the college's professional producing arm. The play is thought to have premiered circa 450 B.C., and depicts the suffering of the titan Prometheus, champion of humankind who has been chained by angry gods to a remote mountain -- in Preston's conception, the wheel -- for his wrongdoing: stealing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to mere mortals.

For Preston, who directs theater and opera throughout the world and recently helmed the "Master Builder" at London's Almeida Theater, this production is vastly different from a "Prometheus" he directed in Poland in 1980. That, he said, was his first professional work outside of graduate school at Yale University, where he also directed his first play for Yale Repertory Theatre.

This piece, noted Preston, joining his colleague on a breezy summer afternoon, was a chance to finally work with Jones.

"Ron and I worked a bit together on "Richard III," said Preston, who was appointed dean in 2010, "and Ron was an artist-in-residence at CalArts for a semester. So when I began to reflect on who could play this role, Ron was the first name that came to mind. He certainly has the classical chops."

But about that wheel...

"Curiously enough," Preston said, "the first idea I had was not a wheel, it was to put the audience on stage and use the amphitheater as the staging area. But the museum felt that was not possible. I knew we needed something that was going to be sufficiently convincing as a site for restraining this great hero of Greek drama, and the wheel offered itself as an exciting solution."

Preston's production is from a new translation by prize-winning author Joel Agee. It features 17 other cast members, including a Greek chorus of 12, all of whom climb on and off the giant wheel throughout the play. For 56-year old Jones, however, being in one position for an hour and fifteen minutes posed its own set of challenges.

"There are things that you find out about your body -- how long you can do this and what you can do with that. You get soreness in places you didn't have before, but it's like doing anything else for the first time -- your body adjusts."

Another concern for the lanky actor with the mellifluous baritone voice was to not let the wheel overpower him. "From the beginning of the play, he's put on the wheel and he goes up. From that point on, you're 24 feet in the air, riffing off tons of words and a lot of dialogue. The challenge is to try and find a way to still make the story intimate, and be clear and articulate.

"It's not so much like a theater piece where you're engaging a lot with different characters on stage -- of course I do with the chorus and also with Okeanos [Joseph Kamal] and Kratos [Adam Haas Hunter], but for the most part, he's just telling stories about this journey that he's on and the day that he'll eventually be saved."

The Chorus clustered around Prometheus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.
The Chorus clustered around Prometheus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.

Preston said that one of the effects of the wheel -- and the director with the ready smile and neatly trimmed gray Van Dyke beard has been up there himself -- is paradoxical. "It's strange, in that it creates a more intimate space in the theater, because it limits your field of vision and brings Ron closer to us. He's eye level with a lot of the audience he wouldn't have been eye level with in a conventional set-up. In a sense, it's spectacular, because when Ron is going to the top it's very exciting, but then you really focus on the action and the acting."

Before taking his place on the wheel, though, Jones said he needed to find his inner Prometheus. For that, he identified with the idea of Jesus' revolutionary acts against Rome and Pontius Pilate.

"I started from there, and also looked into Afro-centric components in the play from Sicily to Ethiopia, and various mentions of regional areas that resonated with me. I also had constant conversations with Travis in regards to who we thought the man was and what he wanted. From those conversations I was able to find something of my own self to bring to the role, so that I'm not just performing it, but actually living it, being it. That's the level I'm trying to move to."

And while Jones called the character self-absorbed, he said there was also emotional depth to Prometheus. "There are magnificent words that have to be put together, but behind it all, it's simple truths -- so many simple truths. That's what I'm trying to get to and hopefully that's what will resonate with the audience."

The play, which will be performed with live, original music, is generally attributed to Aeschylus (that, however, is up for scholarly debate). It is also one of the most translated works in the Greek canon. That it's still profoundly relevant to today's technologically bent audiences is apparent to Preston, who in 2006 was named Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture.

"In my view, Prometheus is the first dissident, and he's certainly a revolutionary. But in terms of his identity as a dissident, he is someone who refuses to tow the party line, and I think that's very meaningful in today's society. I believe that this ancient story resonates in a variety of concepts. I think it resonates with the turmoil in Egypt, I think it resonates in the atrocities that are being perpetuated in Syria, and I believe that it is unfortunately, meaningful throughout the world where tyranny continues to dominate and create a kind of political imprisonment."

As the world's first dissident, however, Prometheus would probably not have worn a harness. But in Preston's theatrical rendering, it's safety first. To that end, the actors were equipped with harnesses and trained by Flying By Foy, the Las Vegas-based company specializing in stage flight. Preston wanted to ensure that the cast could securely negotiate the sometimes-moving wheel, which was conceived by Preston and scenic designer Efren Delgadillo Jr., and engineered by Mark Odom of DAS Design Works.

Explained Preston: "When we knew that we wanted to go with this massive structure, we wanted it to be as expressive as possible, and that also meant creating a way for the chorus to perform on it. When we made that decision, we had to make absolutely certain that our company was safe."

Preston is hoping to take "Prometheus" abroad, but in the interim, he said he not only loves making theater in Los Angeles, but he also loves L.A. audiences. One of his productions originating at CalArts Center for New Performances was his 2004 "Macbeth (A Modern Ecstasy)," starring Stephen Dillane. Created for the Institute's black box space in Walt Disney Concert Hall, it was a tour-de-force for the English actor, who portrayed all the characters in the Shakespeare tragedy, with his performance hailed by the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed as, "prodigious, incandescent, incantatory."

Preston acknowledged that he and Dillane could not have made that production anywhere else. "We took it to London and Australia, and a variety of places, but L.A. is an exceedingly open environment. Frankly, this production of "Prometheus," without the cooperation between the Getty and CalArts, it's impossible to create something like this. It was really the coming together of those two institutions, and our close physical proximity, that allowed this to take shape.

"The real hallmark of the Los Angeles audience, which I think is stimulating a boon to performance here," continued Preston, "is the audience's willingness to engage new and exciting impulses on the stage. My feeling is that the performance environment will become very much like what's already happened in the art world, where significant work is being made here. It's really a capital for that."

Performing in the Villa's amphitheater is also a magnet for audiences, who are privy to seeing a classic work under the stars in a magnificent setting, and where the pristine acoustics don't demand miked voices. As for some theatergoers getting a sense of déjà vu upon seeing the Promethean wheel, Preston said it was based on a famous clock in Prague that shows the position of the sun and the moon as it tells time.

"It's a reference to the idea of the relationship of Prometheus to the cosmos and to the astrological. There's also a relationship to the wheel of Dharma and not, insignificantly, within a Christian context, the Catherine Wheel."

For Cephas Jones, who regularly trods the boards for such prestigious troupes as Steppenwolf and the Labyrinth Theater Companies, and who earned a 2007 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in the Theater, doing this play is comparable to performing Shakespeare.

"As far as language, literature and history is concerned, it's very similar. But it's this production that's the most challenging."

Jones, whose perfectly trimmed rectangle of a black beard accentuates his face, one whose nose could have been etched on Roman statuary, paused. "I think it's every actor's dream to constantly stretch and push yourself and see what you can and can't do. It makes for a more exciting journey each day and dealing with your fears, which are there also. I'm terribly excited about being able to pull this off and make it a great performance every night."

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