Rescue Remedy

Ancient Greeks and contemporary Americans chafe at the ties that bind

The ties that bind aren't always so blessed. Just ask Prometheus, hero of Aeschylus' 450 B.C. tragedy, fastened to a rock face with manacles, chains, and a spike through his chest. Or, for a more figurative approach, you might watch Rachel, protagonist of Lucy Thurber's contemporary drama, as she listens to a voice-mail message from her mother: "Are you there, baby? I need to talk to my baby. . . . I've never been so sad before." Written some 2,400 years apart, both plays reveal a grave discomfort with the people and things that tie us to the world, betraying a longing for some unearthly, ethereal deliverance.

Many a Greek tragedy has a fixed, hieratic quality, but even the most formal ones do not render their main characters immobile. How can such a static situation come alive onstage? Prometheus Bound begins with the hero's fettering to a rock and closes with him still trussed. Apparently, the unbinding takes place in the sequel, now lost. Director/translator James Kerr's chief innovation is casting the vital, muscled Nigerian actor David Oyelowo as Prometheus and featuring a long extratextual segment in which Oyelowo rattles and wrenches his chains, groaning and crying.

Garbed only in a loincloth and a bit of stage blood, Oyelowo makes for a delicious—if indefensible—stage figure. An African man in chains is too charged an image to take pleasure from, no matter how sculpted that particular man's thighs. Kerr fails his Classic Stage Company audience somewhat by introducing this image, while leaving it unconnected to any other particulars of the text or the production. The provocation is offered and otherwise ignored. Prometheus is something of a provocateur himself, though one with better follow-through. He "took honors from the gods and showered them upon the creatures of the day." Not only did he present we "creatures called humankind" with fire, but he also "stopped mortals from foreseeing their fate. . . . I gave blind hope a home in their breasts."

Jenny Maguire and Maggie Siff in Stay
photo: Lucy Thurber
Jenny Maguire and Maggie Siff in Stay

Details

Prometheus Bound
By Aeschylus
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
212-352-3101

Stay
By Lucy Thurber
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place
212-868-4444

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Kerr's hopes, blind or otherwise, seem fixed upon his lead actor. The rest of the company—George Bartenieff as Hephaestus and Oceanus; Hermes; Io; some sea nymphs—seem underrehearsed at best. As Io, a woman transformed into a heifer and plagued by gadflies, Julie McNiven seems utterly cowed. While a program interview suggests Kerr put much work and study into his conception of the play—and its discussion of the individual's resistance against tyranny—few of these thematic or textual niceties emerge. Apart from Oyelowo, Kerr has left this production unfettered.

Unlike poor Prometheus, Lucy Thurber's Stayproves more difficult to pin down. Sometimes it seems a juvenile play, at other times a deep and affecting one. Like Thurber's Where We're Born,which also played on the Rattlestick stage, Stay concerns a young woman struggling to break free from an impoverished, abusive upbringing. With the assistance of a giggly muse, Rachel (Maggie Siff) has transformed her fraught background into a well-received short-story collection and even secured a university teaching job. But when her brother (Thomas Sadoski) arrives unannounced and a bright student reveals an attraction, Rachel's nicely structured life threatens to collapse.

Thurber packs too much into this play, the supernatural elements not the least of them. While the brother-sister relationship is finely articulated, Rachel's treatment of her students, and theirs of her, strains credibility. Add in Rachel's backstory, her struggle to finish a new novel, confusing sexuality, a bassoon-heavy soundtrack, and an angel who dances on tippy-toe—well, it shouldn't be attempted in two acts. In fact, it's a credit to Thurber's writing and some nicely realized performances that the play succeeds at all—and large hunks do. Perhaps Thurber has her own muse, though we trust her twitters less.

 
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