'Bound' for Success at the A.R.T.: Serj Tankian Creates Music for Updated Greek Tragedy

Publication date: 
March 15, 2011
Author: 
Nancy Kalajian

There was something just barely touching my shoulder and, when I turned my head, I was staring at an angel’s lower leg. Passing by my other shoulder, she quickly made a gentle leap onto the floor and jumped on a neighboring table seating four, then over a railing and onto the main stage, finally climbing up and wrapping her arms around a long pole. Her message of concern for Prometheus was relayed to him and two other pole-hugging angels.

No, this scene wasn’t taking place in heaven but in an eerie yet active stage at one end of Harvard Square. Often looking down from up above, these three-winged Daughters of the Aether, or Ocean, were an ever-present choral presence giving vocal chops and narration to the anxious, yet strong-willed Prometheus, featured in the new rock musical, “Prometheus Bound,” at the Oberon stage of the American Repertory Theater (ART).

This scene may not have happened in the exact sequence as stated above but so much happened in the 80-minute production, I don’t believe it’s too far off the mark. With actors seemingly using every available nook and cranny as a staging ground and with stage assistants carrying actors or moving mini platforms within the main stage, this production of “Prometheus Bound” was a busy, hands-on, immersive affair, not only for the interactive aspect of the stage hands mingling with a standing or sitting audience but for Prometheus who was beaten, chained and tortured for something he firmly believed in — fighting tyranny.

The acting in this production was as strong as the wildest flames. Indeed, in this Ancient Greek tragedy, the Titan named Prometheus (aptly played by actor Gavin Creel) was punished by Zeus for giving mortals the gift of fire. Naked and sweaty from the waist up for the duration of the show, you could really sense the agony Prometheus endured at the hands of Zeus.

For me, I felt a range of emotions in this theatrical experience — from gruesome to unsettling, from courageousness to powerlessness. I was spellbound when Prometheus connected with Io, a human who was seduced by Zeus. Io, played by the powerful singer Uzo Abuda, projected well in The Hunger and What I think of Myself.

Steven Sater, Tony award-winner for Broadway’s “Spring Awakening,” wrote the script and lyrics to “Prometheus Bound,” based on the Greek tragedy by Aeschylus 2,500 years ago. Serj Tankian, the composer, is lead singer of Grammy-award winning System of a Down as well as a successful solo artist, is well-known in the rock world but for Armenians, he’s also remembered for the documentary “Screamers,” about him and System and their work toward getting the word out about the Genocide.

In “Prometheus Bound,” Tankian takes listeners on a bold musical journey; there are 19 diverse musical pieces, many written with two or more styles ranging from rock to blues to folk and ethno- world. The musical score works well and accompanies the drama in an effective manner. A six-piece band performs live on stage and musicians play an array of instruments including a viper, flugelhorn, sitar and bass guitars.

Though the music often seemed loud, the acoustics in the theatre were fine and each actor’s words resounded, the music was often enjoyable with some catchy beats; and you could clearly hear the lyrics (haunting), which should be expected in a musical. For those with sensitivity to loud music, however, this production may be ill-suited but wearing the earplugs provided by the theater could provide some comfort, as it did for me.

“Prometheus Bound” is being produced in conjunction with the Prometheus Project, Amnesty International and local Boston activists. With injustices in mind as reflected in this musical, a different political prisoner’s case will be brought to the attention of the audience each week. At the end of a show and after bows by the actors, one actor asks for the audiences’ attention and briefly describes that week’s designated political prisoner and what the audience members can do to peacefully show their support ñ whether it’s signing a letter of concern or sharing the prisoner’s plight with others concerned about human rights. Last week, at the end of the performance, the focus was on Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who has been sentenced to six years in prison in Iran. The charges against him included propaganda against the state for making a film deemed to be against the government, and for his alleged involvement in inciting the protests following last year’s presidential election.

After the show and as we reflect in Harvard Square, I can’t help but think of this former hippie hangout of the 1960s, the musical “Hair” and the politics, alternative lifestyles, philosophies, and causes so prevalent then (and many still so today). Will “Prometheus Bound” — with its eclectic, traditional yet contemporary focus — be this decade’s poster child?

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