Friday, March 25, 2016

EclecticPond's 'Prometheus Bound' takes Aeschylus up to the Age of Snowden

Ancient Greek religion and its Roman offspring have been both puzzling and fascinating to most of what is  quaintly called Christendom. That tradition, with its fallible, squabbling gods, perpetually interfering with human lives in a way that makes Jehovah look standoffish, seems to defy piety.

Once those stories and the complexity of divine natures were turned to artistic purposes, however, they came alive as material that speaks to our dilemmas, right up to the present day. This pertinence is what drives the adaptation of Aeschylus' "Prometheus Bound" that EclecticPond Theatre Company is presenting through April 3 at the Wheeler Arts Community.

Hephaestus secures manacles on the prisoner's wrists.
Carey Shea, the production's director, had the provocative notion to make Prometheus' offense against the divine order — bringing the gift of fire to humankind — the archetype of the 21st-century exposure of government secrets represented by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. Fire, the mythical origin of technological progress, is well-suited to symbolize the sharing of knowledge that contemporary electronic media make possible.

Wherever there are secrets closely guarded by the powers that be, ordinary folks are certain to be taken advantage of. In the fifth century B.C., in the only surviving play of his Prometheus trilogy, Aeschylus makes of divine peccadilloes the stuff of tragedy for mere earthlings. Thus, the playwright himself was a kind of fire-bringer, a forethinker, to use the two most common Promethean epithets.

What the play provides — and, despite the updating, Shea commendably uses a dignified, stately translation — is an examination of self-sacrifice for the greater good. The action of the play is stunning, but doesn't move forward in the way playgoers have come to expect. Prometheus' visitors help reveal his plight and elicit explanations from him in a manner that uncannily parallels the Book of Job.

Chained to a rock in the original, Prometheus (the name the internet hacker Alexander Sarkos goes by) in this version has helped develop the surveillance program Firenet. He is a rebel who turns his back on the National Security Agency, in whose employ he helped develop the program, and is punished by imprisonment, cozily enough for Hoosiers, in Terre Haute's federal facility. The remote, lofty geography of Prometheus' confinement is conveniently suggested by the meaning of Terre Haute, "high ground."

Specially created TV newscast segments fill in the modern referents the production needs to bridge the 2,500-year gap. The story is consistently secularized, as Zeus is no more than a vengeful autocrat, trying to hide his misdeeds by lashing out with an authority compounded of lightning bolts, earthquakes, the thuggish messenger god Hermes, and total control of what is laughably called the criminal justice system.

Bradford Reilly plays Prometheus with an air of calm, sturdy defiance.  His performance Thursday evening conveyed the idea of a brilliant malcontent who's in it for the long haul. There was an attractive self-righteousness about the hero's rhetorical defense, complete with a rising tone of indignation that his obvious benefactions should be held to deserve such protracted suffering.

He knows things about his former boss that give him a little leverage, but Aeschylus never suggests that the hero will be able to turn the tables. The play ends in cataclysm, with flashing lights and wailing sirens; Thomas Cardwell's set and lights and Tristan Ross' sound contribute mightily to the show's effect and the success of its archaic/contemporary blend.

Aeschylus' Chorus becomes a TV reporter in ETC's "Prometheus Bound"
Onstage, Ross strongly defined two contrasting roles: the vain, slick lawyer Oceanus and the reluctant warden Hephaestus, nicely drawn from the lame Greek god of the forge. Taylor Cox was aptly blood-curdling as both a hostile prison guard and, in a climactic scene, the brutal Hermes.

The crucial importance of the chorus in Greek theater has been smoothed out and made less static by its representation as a sympathetic reporter. In today's typical manner, Ann Marie Elliott delivered on-air commentary on Prometheus' plight outside the hero's cell in addition to gathering information from in-person interviews. 

The Wanderer (Io), a refugee, tells her harrowing story.
The role of the nymph Io, often called the Wanderer, ingeniously becomes a refugee in this production, attracting suspicion wherever she goes. That's an up-to-the-minute touch, of course. Driven batty by Zeus' stalking interest in her, Io was vividly characterized by Elysia Rohn. Perhaps the least susceptible to adaptation, the role has frequent references to Io's being plagued by stinging insects.

This is a little confusing in the modern context; in the original, Io has had the indignity of being disguised as a heifer to fool Hera, Zeus' wife, about the god's interest in her. Then she has to leave home and submit to the Hera-imposed gadfly nuisance forever. The Greek gods couldn't harm each other directly, so their payback was visited upon unlucky mortals.

Even though this is considerable baggage for the role of Io to carry, it can readily be interpreted as an indication of how unrestrained, unjust power can drive its victims mad. And what could make this fine production more contemporary than that?