Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
We’ve all seen our share of straightforward, deeply faithful productions of classical theater, shows that try to make us feel as though we ourselves are walking the dusty streets of Troy or Colchis in our leather sandals. And we’ve seen plenty of sleekly modern contemporary reimaginings—Julius Caesar in a sleek pinstripe suit, sending out his orders via Motorola two-way. But how often have we seen both approaches in the same show? At the Studio Theatre, Joy Zinoman has staged a new adaptation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus that neatly stitches past to present. First we get the ancient world, and then, after a quick intermission—to warm up the time machine, presumably—we get the modern one.
Five centuries before Christ, Aeschylus wrote a trilogy of short plays about Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give it to man. (For that offense, and more generally for bucking Zeus’ authority, he was chained to a rock, where an eagle feasted on his regenerating liver every day.) But of those three plays only the first, Prometheus Bound, has survived; the other two, like the bulk of classical Greek drama, are lost. Over the centuries, historians and writers have imagined what might have been. Shelley wrote his own four-act version of the vanished second play, Prometheus Unbound.
Studio is producing an update of sorts that begins with the extant Aeschylus text and joins it to a new version it calls Prometheus Released, which the company commissioned as a kind of companion act from the writer Sophy Burnham. Burnham is also responsible for the adaptation of the first half, working from two different translations, by Edith Hamilton and by James Scully and C.J. Herington.
The play opens, after a blackout, on a scene showing three men: Hephaistos (James Zidar), the god of the forge, and two of Zeus’ henchmen, Power (Timmy Ray James) and Violence (Maurice Allain). Outfitted in muscular classical costumes by Helen Q. Huang (whose work here is top-notch), they discuss just having finished tethering Prometheus in a forsaken spot they call “the edge of the world.” Another blackout reveals our unfortunate hero, chained to a little triangular opening in the middle of a row of steps, which dominate Russell Metheny’s minimalist set.
As played by William M. Hulings, this Prometheus certainly looks the part, with a Grecian mop of curly hair and bulging thigh muscles. But he strains so violently at his chains that, at least for the first few minutes, it’s sometimes difficult to hear what he’s saying. (This is a problem I’ve come across before only in productions of A Christmas Carol, where Jacob Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Past is accompanied by his own metallic soundtrack.) And it must be said, too, that Hulings thoroughly fails to excite in the role. Prometheus is the Greek patron saint, as it were, of mankind, so in theory it shouldn’t be too hard for Hulings to gain our sympathy. Yet for all his raging and pleading on our behalf, Prometheus remains distant.
Burgeoning doubts are swept cleanly away by the arrival of the Daughters of Ocean, a group of 16 identically dressed women (their hair is even cropped similarly) who serve as the chorus. They wear flowing gray-brown dresses, their hair frizzy and chaotic but somehow still tamed (in the manner of Cameron Diaz at the Oscars); they move in gracefully choreographed lock step, singing and declaiming to Prometheus, raising their arms and their voices in unison. It’s a fabulously executed idea, and for a few minutes it lifts the production to Olympian heights.
Perhaps inevitably, the show loses a little momentum after that, as Ocean (Leo Erickson, wearing stilts, though you’d think the ocean would be horizontal rather than vertical), Io (Sarah Marshall, the only actor—for better and worse—to buck Zinoman’s efforts to keep the show tonally monochromatic), and Hermes (Tom Story) arrive to pay their respects at Prometheus’ little corner of the world.
Burnham’s new text takes over in the second half, which has been brought up to the present day with contemporary costumes and the addition of a sliding glass screen running across the stairway where Prometheus has just been languishing. At first, Burnham gives us a bit of an update: Prometheus has been freed, and he’s not happy with Zeus. Finally, Zeus himself (Ted van Griethuysen) arrives, wearing a tattered coat and sandals. (“If I came in my real aspect, it would blind even the gods,” he explains.) Soon, he and Prometheus are nose-to-nose, and we get the confrontation we’ve been waiting for. In the event, it’s short on action and very long on dorm-room philosophizing: Instead of a real match of wits or ambitions, Burnham turns the rest of the play into an extended metaphysical and theological debate about the nature and misdeeds of the human race, from simple pride to the sins of befouling and overpopulating the planet. Speaking through Zeus, Burnham tilts at every windmill she can think of, and then some.
Van Griethuysen is effectively gruff and wise in the role, but his lines are thanklessly flabby and overly ambitious, in contrast to the Spartan muscularity of Zinoman’s staging. Burnham first sets up the clash as a father-son debate—authority vs. rebellion, tradition vs. novelty. Then she has Zeus talking as capital-G God, full of Old Testament fury and absolute wrathful certainty, while Prometheus is Jesus, sent to do the work of heaven down among the people. Then Zeus begins to sound like an environmentalist, then a feminist, then a pacifist, then a Quaker. (Heroism doesn’t have to be muscular and violent, Zeus whispers; it “can be slow and quiet, too.” Any Greek god, male or female, who talks like that deserves to be immediately tossed off Mount Olympus.) The chorus returns, this time in the black dresses and slicked-back hair of a Robert Palmer video; it feels a bit like too little, too late.
This is one of those productions, I realize just now as I write this, whose charms fade surprisingly quickly in the mind’s eye. In the theater, it’s easy to get caught up in the show’s charisma, panache, and tone—all of which are a credit to Zinoman’s vision. But at a remove, you begin to realize just how thoroughly the coolly executed style of this Prometheus has trumped its substance.
I didn’t see Le Neon Theatre’s 1996 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs. As the company is not shy about pointing out, it earned a Helen Hayes nomination for Outstanding New Play. This month, Le Neon is remounting the production in Arlington in preparation for a tour honoring the 200th anniversary of Hugo’s birth. It’s impossible for me to say how much the new version resembles the old one. But let’s just say that Helen, unless she’s completely lost her marbles, is not likely to come calling this time around.
With its arch theatricality and intimidating literary pedigree, which it wields like a billy club, this is the kind of show that a lot of people feel obligated to sit still for, and even clap for, because they sense that it’s somehow over their heads, or that they’d be betraying some gauche American philistinism by saying what they really think about it. So I’ll do it for them: The show, which tells the story of a gentle, Christlike figure named Gwynplaine (Didier Rousselet) who has a grotesquely toothy grin carved into his face, and who discovers midway through the action that he is actually a lord, is baffling in the most malevolent of ways. It is not just obtuse and incomprehensible but proud of those qualities, in the finest pseudo-intellectual tradition.
It’s hard to know where to begin. Oh, I know: The narrator, Ursus, is played with over-the-top glee by Tel Monks. His English is so thickly accented—he has such trouble with his R’s, for example—that you begin to feel a little sorry for the poor fellow stumbling through a huge part in an adopted language. Then you read his bio and discover he was born…in England. Hmmm. As Gwynplaine, Rousselet also subjects us to the Accent, though his is apparently genuine. When you add the fact that the huge grin apparatus that covers his face gives him a serious lisp, his voice sounds as though he were trying desperately to communicate while being buried alive in a pit of pebbles. It’s that kind of show: Somehow metaphors of torture, of being trapped and unable to escape some horrible fate, keep springing to mind.
Rousselet is also the director, along with Monica Neagoy—which means he’s among those responsible for the achingly slow pace of the production, its superior air, and its stretches of seemingly meaningful but paper-thin Gallic portent. Karin Graybash’s sound design consists of classical snippets delivered at punk-rock volume. There are glimmers of promise, such as when Gwynplaine gives us a lovely monologue about the haves and have-nots that Ralph Nader should think about incorporating into his stump speech. Otherwise, though, the production sheds almost no light on the themes and attractions of the novel that inspired it. Victor Hugo est mort, indeed. CP