Uprising Theatre Company, who I’ve previously covered at The Column here and here, have primarily produced new work with often silenced voices at the helm. I was intrigued when I heard they would be doing Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, a classic greek tragedy that tells the story of Prometheus, who according to Greek mythology gave humans fire (and other gifts), and was brutally punished by Zeus for it. When I heard that Denzel Belin would be sitting in the director’s chair, I went from intrigued to excited. While Belin is known for his comedic work as both a director and performer, his drama chops are solid too, and this show was a great vehicle for him to deepen his directorial skill set. Performances range from “good” to “excellent”, and the parts of theatre that are my least favorite to deal with as a director such as the set design, use of theatre “tricks”, and light design are perfectly designed and executed.
Prometheus Bound is not a perfect play in and of itself though, and I do think this translation from Bryan Doerries has some confusing and troubling elements. The lines are almost written as if they should scan more like classic literature but it’s not consistent in this. This forces actors to sometimes speak with strange emphases in strange places in spite of the cast’s talent. Additionally the story structure stagnates after awhile, only truly picking up again when a brilliant Emily Rose Duea comes in as the desperate, tortured Io. This is completely a script issue; the cast works very hard to overcome it, you just can’t force a rising action that doesn’t exist. My only other complaint is minimal.
The cast is, for the most part, solid. However, after a few particularly heartbreaking moments from Shahd Elkhier’s Prometheus, there were a few entrances and monologue or scene deliveries from actors that brought the height of the scene down through lack of energy. This is not an across the board, across the play problem, and I don’t think it’s an issue of actor talent. Lines and intentions are delivered clearly and smartly, but when a play bears this much weight every performer has to work to be memorable, and that isn’t the case the for this show. Finally, I do think this show warrants some content or trigger warnings that aren’t there. A person of color seeing this show or someone who has had bad run ins with police will likely have a lot of trouble getting through the first several minutes. There are important but tough moments, and I absolutely think the show is commendable for “going there”, but I also think that some warnings would be useful.
No play is perfect though, but overall Prometheus Bound is incredibly successful and powerful. Politically this is a smart, charged play to choose as the title character openly questions Zeus, the new King of Gods, while warning others not to do the same for their own good. Prometheus questions Zeus’ power and his abuse of it in ways that ring eerily true to present day politics. Doerries and the production deserve equal credit for this. The program tells me that Doerries works hard to promote how relevant classic drama is to current day, and this is clearly where his strength as a translator lies. Uprising as producer and Denzel Belin as director took those themes and ran, creating parallels to police brutality, isolation cells, and mass incarceration. This is primarily conveyed through visual images. The person I saw the play with and I disagree about how well done those themes are conveyed through the text and where I’ve landed is that seeing that story does require suspending your disbelief and allowing yourself to think in more abstract terms, but that story is there.
Visually I was very impressed by this show. The set is incredibly simple but incredibly cohesive, creating a very clear image of a prison cell while giving room for the Greek story of Prometheus being tied up. There is a strong eye for detail—the poles from the audience that everyone complains about in the Phoenix are designed to fit the show, and the coat racks on stage are decorated almost symmetrically. Performers wear color coordinated, simple clothes that fit together naturally but never seem too forced. This play also has stunning movement work. I’m actually really iffy on the current trend of overusing movement work in plays. It often is meant to look good but doesn’t really add a lot to the show. This movement work is not that. It is inspired and I can’t imagine this show without it. We start with a story about a war between the gods, or about police brutality in neighborhoods of color. It sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the show, and adds a layer of depth to characters we don’t even know yet. Prometheus Bound is a Greek play, and traditionally done with a chorus who chant in unison, play minor parts, and sometimes each take a turn with a larger chunk. This translation gives actors a little more meat to chew on, and Belin gives them plenty of time to shine, which the majority of performers do. The traditional Greek masks are replaced with face paint over the eyes, and I’m not sure I could do that look justice by explaining further. It really should be seen. The most impressive thing besides some of the performers was the light design. We rarely see lights that look as fluorescent and icy as prison lights or hospital lights on stage, and this show’s use of Phoenix’ LED light set-up creates an uncanny depiction of this light. It is harsh, setting the mood for the action on stage, and perfectly matched in tone.
Moving on to performances, Elkhier’s Prometheus is so unique in such a wonderful way that I really think it shouldn’t be missed. Greek plays are so often about hubris, and my original read on the story of Prometheus was that it was a story of his pride versus Zeus’s. Elkhier brings a level of humanity, compassion, and kindness to Prometheus that I never could have anticipated. Her Prometheus is charged and angry at Zeus, Hera, and their messengers, but when it comes to humans as well as the “lesser” gods that we see, she is all heart and willing to go through the suffering she is to make their lives better. Classic works can be interpreted in so many different ways and Elkhier’s take on Prometheus made my heart ache for her, and made me want to hop up and help her from the audience. It’s absolutely lovely, and worth the price of admission on it’s own. I mentioned a stand out performance already—Emily Rose Duea is a wonderful Io. Io is a character Hera turns into a cow after Zeus essentially sexually assaults her that is inexplicably played for laughs in a lot of Greek and Greek themed work. Duea and the production really make us feel the horror of what Io has been through and is slated to still be through. Janay D Henry plays Hephaetus, the god doomed to force Prometheus into her chains. Her casting in this role makes a huge statement about the way white supremacy forces people of color to do the dirty work, and Henry’s take on Hephaetus shows the guilt, sadness, and pain that come with that. It’s one of the most important roles in the show when done this way, and Henry’s performance is breathtaking. In fact it is so good that I am sad that the script doesn’t allow for further exploration of the relationship between Prometheus and Hephaetus. This is in no way a knock on the script. It doesn’t make sense for that to actually be there. Henry is so, so good that I wanted that anyway.
One of my favorite things about Uprising as a Theatre Company is their community engagement program. In this case they have four community partners all aimed at making life easier for those incarcerated or preventing incarceration. It’s a great program, and they have talk backs aimed at giving focus to those groups and issues in the play. Seeing a show at Uprising isn’t just a night at the theatre. It’s a cultural experience where you’re encouraged to wander, buy some goodies, and learn how to help people doing some of the most necessary work in our community. I strongly suggest Prometheus Bound on it’s own artistic merit, but the experience Uprising creates is well worth your time and effort as well.
Prometheus Bound is performing at the Phoenix Theater through April 29th. Don’t worry if you’re not an evening person—they’ve got plenty of matinees to go around too. Tickets are sliding scale $5-50 and available here.