At first, director Travis Preston wanted to seat the audience for "Prometheus Bound" at the Getty Villa where the actors would normally be: on the plaza in front of the museum that doubles as a stage for the Getty's annual late-summer outdoor productions of ancient plays.
The drama would unfold high above the crowd, in the vacated rows and aisles of the Villa's steeply sloped Roman-style theater. The switch made sense for a play whose hero is chained to a mountainside above an ocean for having thwarted Zeus' plans.
Preston's idea was shot down for logistical reasons, so the veteran stage director, dean of the California Institute of the Arts School of Theater, needed to come up with a Plan B.
Set designer Efren Delgadillo Jr. was sitting with Preston on the theater's steps one day, looking out at the plaza and the museum and trying to figure out what to do next, when the director pulled out a paper napkin and drew a circle.
"He said, 'I want a big wheel,'" Delgadillo recalled. "Actually, his words were, 'I want a big … wheel.'"
And that's what Delgadillo gave him, with help from LA ProPoint, a fabrication company that specializes in theme park rides and unusual stage machinery. The steel wheel is 23 feet tall and weighs 5 tons, not counting its untold metaphorical heft as a symbol for Time, the Cosmos, Fate, the Wrath of Zeus and what have you.
Getty officials enthusiastically agreed to Plan B and have proudly sported the wheel as a Villa adornment since mid-July, well before the Getty and the CalArts Center for New Performance present poet Joel Agee's new translation of the 2,500-year-old-piece, which runs Sept. 5 through 28.
When they arrive at the doorstep of one of America's leading collections of ancient Greek and Roman art, museumgoers encounter a monumental modernist contraption that looks as if it could have strayed from Fritz Lang's classic 1920s silent film, "Metropolis."
"Prometheus Bound," commonly attributed to Aeschylus although scholars have serious doubts, is about as thematically large as fiction can get. Prometheus has stolen fire from the gods and given it to the human race, throwing in mankind's first tutorials in science, medicine, technology and the arts. Now we watch him pay the price and are asked to consider whether it was worth it.
Besides the metaphoric weight, the wheel bears about three-quarters of a ton of acting talent. In some scenes, Preston's 12-woman chorus of CalArts students and recent graduates clambers aboard, joining the hero on whom they alternately shower pity for his suffering and chastisement for helping those ridiculous humans and refusing to free himself with an apology.
Preston says the challenge of deploying a full-sized Greek chorus of actor-singer-dancers initially drew him to "Prometheus Bound." Getting to arrange them on a big wheel just ups the ante.
After watching the chorus sing in unison while dancing in ranks on the plaza flats during a recent rehearsal, the director turned them toward the wheel and they began ascending in waves. The soundtrack was L.A. jazzman Vinny Golia working an arsenal of reed and percussion instruments as the play's live accompanist.
Also audible was the clanking of metal safety clips attached to body harnesses worn by each actor. In addition to their lines and their moves, they've learned to clamp themselves to one of the wheel's rims or spokes before every step, to prevent falls.
"Your ascent is the ascent of humanity," Preston told the chorus after its surge up the wheel. "It has to be smooth. It doesn't have to be fast. We'll be looking for the timing to be slower than you've done, so the drama of the rising on the wheel gets enough time."
During a break, Kaitlin Cornuelle, a chorus actor in her first production since graduating from CalArts in May, said the rigor of dealing with the wheel is less physical than psychic. The job calls for graceful, well-timed movement while clearly intoning lines in unison with 11 others and hitting the right emotional notes, while also carrying out special safety protocols. After each rehearsal, she said, "It's not, 'Oh, my thighs hurt.' It's 'Oh, my mind hurts.'"
Like everyone else in the chorus, her gear included a triangular pelvic harness shaped like a bikini bottom, with straps attached for the climbing clips. The apparatus comes from Flying By Foy, the Las Vegas airborne performance effects company engaged by the production to provide equipment and safety training.
At first, said Gary Kechely, a CalArts faculty member and production manager for "Prometheus Bound," Flying By Foy hesitated because it specializes in flying, not climbing. "We said, 'We want to make use of your expertise. Whether it's flying or suspended, there's a commonality" in not wanting to see actors fall and break their necks.
Kechely said the first round of rehearsals with the wheel last winter at CalArts' Valencia campus and this summer's preparations at the Getty have been accident-free.
Topmost in the cast credits, and on the wheel, is Ron Cephas Jones, an experienced New York actor making his Los Angeles stage debut as Prometheus. Even though he'll spend the play bound by the wrists in a crucified-Jesus pose, Jones will be surprisingly mobile: his perch is a smaller wheel-within-the-wheel that can circle the big one like the hand of a clock.
"I'm hoping I don't have to scratch my nose or sneeze," said the lean, bony-faced actor, who won a 2007 Obie Award for "sustained excellence of performance" in off-Broadway shows. Jones has played his share of legendary characters, including Odysseus in Sophocles' "Ajax," Pontius Pilate in Stephen Adly Guirgis' "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" and Shakespearean turns as Richard III, Othello, Caliban in "The Tempest" and the demonic avenger Aaron in "Titus Andronicus." Prometheus is his first immortal.
His 2011 experience in "Titus Andronicus" fed Jones' confidence about hitting the heights as Prometheus — in his exit scene at New York's Public Theater, he'd defied ancient Rome from a platform high above the stage. Here, he'll defy the gods from a peak elevation of 18 or 19 feet.
"Actors love challenges, and this presents a wonderful challenge," said Jones, who wears military dog tags from a past costume as a reminder that when he's performing he's "a soldier of the theater."
Mirjana Jokovic, director of performance at CalArts, will ascend the wheel as Io, another victim of the gods. It's the first stage role in seven years for the Serbian actress. Now she'll ascend to Prometheus' perch to receive a pep talk from the all-foreseeing Titan on how, thanks to her offspring, the wheel will eventually turn, metaphorically speaking, and humans will one day dethrone Zeus.
"This wheel deserves to be seen," Jokovic said. "It's a special work of art on its own."
But doesn't that make it dangerous in a way that has nothing to do with slips and falls? Might not this exceptionally distinctive set piece upstage the 20-member cast it's meant to hold?
No, says Jokovic. The 10,000-plus pound circle of steel makes a collaborative performance partner. "The wheel is our world, our microcosmic unit," she said. "We're not separate from it or against it. It helps to get us centered."
"One of the challenges is to constantly draw the audience into the story," Jones said. "If we tell the story, the wheel will become a byproduct of the story and not the story a byproduct of the wheel."
Preston does not believe his napkin scrawl birthed a Frankenstein's monster that could eat his production.
"That can happen with any piece of scenery if it's gratuitous," he said. "What we're dealing with here is pretty essential and utilitarian. Originally it was going to be 30 feet high" — nearly a third bigger than it wound up. "We feel this is the right proportion for the space and that it paradoxically creates a certain kind of intimacy."
Designer Delgadillo says he made sure to imbue the wheel with a special measure of beneficent karma, insisting that an actual ship's wheel serve as its primary control, rotated by a single technician at its base.
"They were going to fabricate one, but I was real picky" about hunting on EBay to find a used steering wheel from a yacht. He says the text itself dictated this as a spiritual necessity. Chained above the ocean, Prometheus ends by defying the gods to bring it on, knowing they can unleash nature's full force:
"Now all the winds are at each others' throats, the sea is mingled with the sky. And here it comes, in plain view, the onslaught sent by Zeus."
At a time like that, Delgadillo said, a production and its hero should be able to depend on a device that has braved the elements at sea.
Where: Getty Villa, 17985 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends Sept. 28.
Tickets: $38 and $42
Contact: http://www.getty.edu (310) 440-7300
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