In the late 19th century, a “spectacle” meant sorcerers and flying fairies, parades, tricks of light, disappearing acts, and, maybe, real water. Jan Fabre’s riveting Prometheus—Landscape II, presented as a world premiere by Peak Performances @ Montclair, is a far grittier spectacle, even though fires flare, sand is thrown and sprayed, lights turn the stage green and gold, and a hero is imprisoned off the ground. In this contemporary extravaganza, performers shed clothing to a degree unthinkable a century or so ago, and messy wrangling, rather than synchronized chorus lines, predominate. Its creator is less concerned with entertainment than with delivering blazing imprecations to a society of do-nothings.
Fabre—a visual and theater artist famed in his native Belgium and throughout Europe—has shown works in the enterprising Peak Performances series in 2006, 2007, and 2008. This latest seems to have been born in rage. Before the curtain opens, Ivana Jozic and Gilles Polet stand on opposite sides of the stage, delivering a long text by Fabre. “We need heroes now!” commands Jozic, who embarks on an oration that speaks of champions, seducers, freedom fighters, prophets, philosopher-pirates, and more—ending with the need for an “authentic creative being.”
Between each stanza, Polet snarls out an increasingly long list of iconic psychiatrists to whom he says, “Fuck you!” Between them, Lawrence Goldhuber (a performer well-known to New York dance audiences) sits motionless—a massive man, nearly naked and enmeshed in ropes.
The rest of the work’s inflammatory poetic text (by Jeroen Olyslaegers) riffs off Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, and Fabre’s 10 valiant and immensely gifted performers play a variety of mythic characters—delivering passionate speeches, as well as participating in wild revels and bondage rites, and negotiating outbursts of flame (assuring us sardonically that there are emergency exits). Only one actor plays a single role. Kurt Vandendriessche, as Prometheus, spends the play (about an hour and 20 minutes long) unmoving, high above the stage, spread-eagled and bound to a structure center stage. Only near the end does he speak, this hero who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, and, by order of Zeus, was shackled to a rock, and is about to have his liver eaten daily by a visiting eagle. He knows the name of the idly begotten son who will kill the god, and he won’t reveal it.
The stage is a busy place, shot through with drastic light, snatches of music, and explosive noises. Red buckets serve many purposes, including dispensing sand and emptying it over characters whose inner fire has burned too hotly. The performers bustle or wander—often wearing black coats and invertible hats that suggest graduates (costumes by Andrea Kränzlin). Devices—sometimes handheld—shoot smoke or emit fire. In a final deluded Dionysian debauch, the performers strip to trunks with sandpaper fronts and, staggering around, strike match after match on their crotches and swallow the tiny flames. In twinned simultaneous acts, Polet tries to get a spark to ignite invisible tinder by rubbing his penis between two hands, and Goldhuber twirls a stick close to the naked Vittoria Deferrari’s crotch. Props multiply. Hephaestus (Kasper Vandenberghe) enters bearing two axes he used to chain the hero; later, the stage is a forest of axes standing on their heads.
There are many startling and potent images. After Cédric Charron, embodying the endlessly rapacious Zeus, copulates for long minutes with Io (Annabelle Chambon), the amazing Chambon crouches down, pulls her hair into a tangle, and—turned into a cow by Zeus’s jealous wife—bellows her lines and howls when others, standing for gadflies, nick her lightly with ax heads. One memorable passage of crazed dancing is ignited by Charron’s remarkably oily and abandoned writhings as Dionysus.
In the end, greedy, conniving, jealous, lying, lustful divinities bother Prometheus less than gadflies. He’s almost smug in his heroism and his courage. Pandora, with her sealed jar of “Death, Pestilence, and Hate,” has almost the last word. To Prometheus: “I am here to teach/This herd of men and women/That even in their darkest hour/They can choose/To become a victim/Or a hero.” That option, she says, is a “holy fire” the gods do not know.
The repeated and variegated storms of words intend to sting our minds awake, even as they arouse our senses. Analogies steam up to goad us (Zeus is also referred to as “our Supreme Leader”). Philosophies wind around our horns. Pyromania flourishes. Fathers may kill sons and sons kill fathers (“Fuck you, Sigmund Freud!”). “To instruct is to destruct,” says Pandora, “and to destruct is instructive for those willing to see.” Watching and listening to Fabre’s parable/spectacle is exciting, dizzying, dangerous, infuriating, sometimes exhausting in its over-the-top furor. Head still throbbing, I’d see it again in an instant.