Pardon me if I start with a wee digression here, but I happen to be personally acquainted with a couple of the cast members of the new musical Prometheus Bound, which is currently running at the Zero Arrow Theater, the secondary venue for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
One of those cast members came up to me after Prometheus Bound to see if I liked it. I didn't. "Well," this person said to another audience member, "This isn't really his kind of music." I didn't say anything at the time, but I took considerable exception to such a pat dismissal of my reaction to the show. I suppose the comment is understandable: this person was simply reflecting an unfortunate tendency that some people have of validating their own views by discrediting someone else's. (Cough, cough...Republican Party...cough, cough...)
But I will say that the remark got me thinking. As a critic and a teacher of musical theater, I think it's important that I constantly question my motives in liking or not liking a particular piece or production. I like to think that I'm not too hidebound by tradition to accept new forms of storytelling, and that artistic quality ultimately transcends idiom.
Well, maybe I am, and maybe it doesn't, but whatever the cause, I was left unmoved and rather irritated by Prometheus Bound. Director Diane Paulus goes to Herculean lengths to imbue the piece with a sense of forward motion, but she's hampered by the work itself, an atmospheric but facile exploration of tyranny, with supposedly rife yet unexplored modern resonance. The show is based, of course, on the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound, the story of a god who has been punished by Zeus for bringing fire to, and preventing the destruction of, the human race.
Various signs and fliers throughout the auditorium heralded the partnership that the folks at the ART had struck with Amnesty International for this production, in the hopes of bringing attention and aid to the victims of various forms of modern-day tyranny throughout the world. A laudable effort, to be sure, and one with a clarity of message that the show itself lacks.
[SPOILER ALERT: I basically reveal the entire plot below. Not that there's much to reveal...]
Librettist Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) adheres fairly closely to the framework of the original play, and therein lies part of the problem. Not a lot really happens in the play, or the musical. Zeus essentially has Prometheus chained to a rock, and for the rest of the current show's 75 minutes, characters visit upon poor Prometheus and either sympathize with his plight or taunt him in his misery. The end. No development, no resolution. Oh, at one point, Prometheus starts discussing a prophecy that concerns Zeus bringing about his own undoing. Zeus will apparently be having a child by a mortal woman named Io and one of the child's descendants will grow up to set Prometheus free. But just when this tantalizing plot complication seems to arise, the show abruptly ends.
I realize that these would seem to be elements inherent in the original play, but I seem to recall that whatever joys are to be found in the original work lie in the language through which Aeschylus (or whoever actually wrote it) brings Prometheus & Company to life. Sater's libretto doesn't quite replicate that feat. The spoken dialog here comprises a lot of plodding speechifying and ham-handed exposition. And then the lyrics only ever seem to talk *about* what's going on rather than actually add anything to the story.
When I could actually understand the lyrics, that is. And trust me, I'm not complaining about the decibel level here. I had my earplugs at the ready but found that, for the most part, I didn't need them. And, for what it's worth, I actually liked the music, which had a compelling drive and a surprising lyricism. (The composer here is one Serj Tankian, the lead vocalist for the awkwardly named rock group System of a Down.) The real problem was that the song lyrics got lost in the acoustics of the auditorium, the density of the rock orchestrations, and to plain old poor diction. But even when I could understand the lyrics, it turned out they really didn't tell me much anyway.
I must admit that, thanks to Diane Paulus, Prometheus Bound was a heck of a lot more dynamic than you'd expect from a show about a man tied to a rock for all eternity. Paulus finds numerous ways to liberate Prometheus, albeit temporarily, from his perch, giving the show both visual and emotional variety. Paulus is abetted handily by a razor-sharp cast, headed by an astonishingly nimble Gavin Creel, in terms of his vocal, physical, and emotional contortions throughout the course of the show. Matching Creel, if not in stage time, then most assuredly in intensity was Uzo Aduba as Io, who commanded my attention the second she entered the playing area, and scarcely gave me chance or motive to look elsewhere for the duration. A truly remarkable performer.
I think Steven Sater is a talented man, with fantastic intentions, and excellent taste in source material. I just wish his songs progressed the plot. Granted, I'm only familiar with Spring Awakening and Prometheus Bound, but from where I sit, Sater's songs are either stop-and-sing internal monologues or obliquely defiant anthems. I'd like to make a deal with Mr. Sater. I'll pledge to continue to question my own preconceptions when it comes to new forms of musical theater if he'll make an effort to write songs that are more integrated and dramatically compelling. I think that's more than fair.