PROVO — The Zion Theatre Company‘s production of Prometheus Unbound retells the story of the Greek mythological figure Prometheus. Prometheus is an intelligent Titan, credited with the creation of man from clay and known as a champion of mankind. He defies the gods by giving fire to humanity, an act that enabled their progress and civilization. As punishment for his defiance, Prometheus is chained to a rock and an eagle is sent to pluck out his regrowing liver every day. Ancient Greeks believed that the liver, rather than the heart, was the seat of human emotions; they saw Prometheus’s punishment as eternal.
Playwright Mahonri Stewart attempted to intertwine Mormon beliefs into this mythological tale by paralleling many of the characters in the play with Christian and Mormon figures. Most notably, Prometheus (Casey William Walker) was represented as a Christ figure, suffering for mankind because of his love for them. He is chained to the rock with his arms positioned as if on a cross, followed by his eventual death and resurrection. Erysichthon (Stephen Geis) is an unbeliever or atheist,
somewhat paralleling doubting Thomas from the New Testament, who did not believe in gods and tried to explain with logic the miracles or miraculous events that he witnessed. Phoebe (Sarah-lucy Hill) had a vision and was protected by the gods until her mission was complete; she eventually became a martyr for her work (I assume she paralleled Joseph Smith). And lastly Zeus (Shawn Saunders) is represented as Satan, tempting those on the journey and bringing pain and suffering to Prometheus.
The story is simple in nature: Phoebe (Hill) has a vision in the beginning of the play where she sees Prometheus, and embarks on a journey to find him. Along the way, she befriends Erysichthon (Geis), Hercules (Bryan Barlow), and Artemis (Mariah Proctor), all whom Phoebe persuades to join her. While Phoebe’s is a literal journey, it seems to parallel a spiritual journey of leading others to Christ.
Without a strong background in Greek mythology and knowledge of the characters presented in the play, it would be extremely difficult to follow the storyline. The script takes a lot of assumptions and fails to create stand-alone characters with much depth or dimension. The intertwining of the Christian characters into the story made it extra confusing, and I did not understand the relevance or purpose in trying to envelop these themes into the story of Prometheus. These attempts did not serve the story in any positive way. In fact, the attempts felt rather shoehorned or forced in a less than subtle manner.
I assume the author’s intent was to make these characters relevant to a Mormon audience. This mix of storylines and characters made the plot and theme very convoluted. I came away from the play unsatisfied and unsure about what was the message or moral that I was suppose to get, because I didn’t get it.
The vast majority of the problems of the production lie in the writing, which needed serious revisions and edits. However, several other elements contributed to a less than impressive production. There were many serious director issues with the production. The blocking was unnatural, as characters moved throughout the stage in attempt to create variety, but without any clear motivations. There was very little shaping to the scenes, no clear arches, and no “peaks and valleys.” This made the show feel very long and indulgent; staying on one level throughout, with little variance.
The play’s director, Sara-lucy Hill, played the main character, Phoebe. I must say that it is rare to see a production succeed when a director casts him or herself in a show, especially as the lead character. I have never understood this choice, as it is a choice that will doom a production. It is nearly impossible to see the show from an outside perspective and fine-tune the details of the play. That was certainly the case here.
The large cast incorporated many actors that played a variety of other mythological characters in the production, such as Pandora (Noelle Houston), Aphrodite, the goddess of love (Rebecca Minson); and Hermes, messenger of the gods and others (also played by Shawn Saunders). In order to create the multiple characters they played, many of these actors would change masks, but not change costumes. This was an especially confusing convention, particularly when a lead character, such as Zeus, would put on a mask and play a completely different character in the play. It was difficult to distinguish whether an actor was playing the principal character that he or she was costumed for, whether the actor playing a new character entirely, or whether a character was in disguise when using a mask (as was the case in certain circumstances).
The characters were extremely flat and static and lacked the dimension or detail to make them real or interesting. As a result, I did not relate to or empathize with any of them. The emotional moments in the play were very insincere; they felt forced and lacked believability. The characters played states of being, rather than really living in the moment. Most notably, Barlow as Hercules would portray outbursts of anger that bordered on melodrama, which came across as comedy rather than the intense reaction or anger that he was going for. Houston as Pandora played her reactions as very exaggerated and over-the-top. Sean Hunter and Jared Cahoon chose to play Jason and Ajax (respectively) as caricatures, with cartoonish facial expressions and reactions bordering on farce. Lastly, Hill as Phoebe appeared static, which created a very shallow character. She attempted to show her character’s emotions with fake crying and unmotivated emoting that seemed very superficial. As a consequence, I saw very little dimension in her character.
The only actor that was completely committed to a specific acting style and created a dimensional and interesting character was Saunders as Zeus. He filled each of his scenes with strong choices, subtlety, and had a clear objective that he was fighting for in each scene. He was definitely a high point to the production. Saunders created a contemporary flavor as the antagonist of the show, while his mannerisms and reactions supported his style choice. He was especially strong in his scene with Pandora and in his character’s final scene, where he engaged several characters that were attempting to save Prometheus. Geis also gave a more natural performance as Erysichthon, the smug and skeptical nonbeliever, though he lacked much-needed chemistry with Phoebe.
I do not know whether to blame the choices of the playwright or the director, or a combination of both, for the inconsistency in acting styles in the production. There were three very different acting styles present in the play. This made many scenes and actors seem very unnatural and made it difficult to understand the world that the play lived in. Zeus, Phoebe and Erysichthon felt like characters in the present day with their contemporary acting. Prometheus and Artemis were presented in classical acting style, with a Shakespearean flavor in their articulation. And Jason and Ajax were presented in a cartoonish, farcical acting style. There was no consistent convention that helped distinguish when each style would be used and by whom. If all the gods embraced a classical acting style and the humans were contemporary, that would have provided some clarity for the mixed styles, but there was no clarity. It seemed that the actors were not really sure which style to embrace and, as such, few characters really committed to a solid choice.
I also do not know whether to categorize the show as a melodrama (as live music underscoring was provided throughout the show), a contemporary drama of sorts, or a morality or religious play. Too many mixed genres, styles and conventions were present to define it specifically.
The costuming, under the design of Allen Stout, was the strongest design element of the production. It captured the mythology and helped identify both the characters and their role in the story through colors and styles.
I have seen several of Mahonri Stewart’s plays through the years, and the same recurring problem is prevalent each time I have watched one of his works: the scripts never feel anywhere near being finished and refined. I walk away from the theater somewhat unsatisfied and thinking, “that was a good start to a script” or “an interesting idea” that could perhaps become a solid production one day. However, it seems to me that he moves on to his next new work, while an unfinished script gets shelved and largely forgotten. Prometheus Unbound was a continuation in this cycle—a script that needs significant editing, rewriting, and reworking before it is ever staged.
Most playwrights go through long and lengthy editing processes as they write and re-write their scripts, making revisions along the way as they consult with dramaturgs, hold public readings of their works in progress, and work closely with the original cast and director to complete a finished product. My strong recommendation to Stewart would be to take a similar approach in the creation of future scripts, so that these issues do not continue.
Unfortunately, I would not recommend this production. The weaknesses in the script, combined with poor directing and acting, will make this a less than fulfilling evening. The pacing problems and indulgent writing in many of the scenes will make for a very long evening. There are some good moments and interesting concepts explored in the production. However, some major editing and reworking of the script is greatly needed before Prometheus Unbound will have any appeal to a mainstream audience.