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.