Directed by Craig Baldwin
Revelation Readings at Red Bull Theater
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 191 Seventh Avenue, NYC
November 18, 2014
Prometheus: John Douglas Thompson
The Earth: Myra Lucretia Taylor
Ione: Mahira Kakkar
Panthea: Susannah Flood
Jupiter, Phantasm of Jupiter: Marc Vietor
Mercury, Springs, Faun, The Moon, and others: Adam Green
Asia: Jennifer Ikeda
Faun, Mountains, Hercules, and others: Tom Nelis
Demogorgon: Mark H. Dold
Spirit of the Hour, Springs, Fury, and others: Angel Desai
Ocean, Whirlwinds, Fury, and others: Miriam Silverman
Apollo, Mountains, Forest Spirit, and others: Tommy Schrider
Spirit of the Earth, Air, Fury, and others: Grant Chapman
Whirlwinds, Fury, Spirit of the Mist, and others: Amelia Pedlow
Suzanne L. Barnett
On November 18, 2013 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village, Revelation Readings, in conjunction with Red Bull Theater and the Romanticist Research Group of New York University, presented the first staged reading of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound since 1998. The performance was followed by an informal Q&A with the director, Craig Baldwin, Red Bull artistic director Jesse Berger, Randie Sessler and Omar F. Miranda from the NYU Department of English, and several exhausted cast members who generously remained after the show to discuss the project with the audience. A sold-out crowd of approximately three hundred—apparently comprising both Shelley enthusiasts and theater fans—enjoyed a lively and nuanced performance that was especially impressive given that the cast had only a single rehearsal that same afternoon. Shelley’s lyrical drama was presented largely uncut and ran at two and a half hours with a single intermission after the end of the second act. The program claims that the event was an attempt to “[strike] a balance between the lyric and the drama,” and the strong performances and direction did indeed offer a compelling imagining, in turns both lyrical and dramatic, of Shelley’s text.
The cast, with delightfully rare exceptions, rose to the daunting task of bringing to life this famously “unstageable” work. John Douglas Thompson (Prometheus), Jennifer Ikeda (Asia), and Mahira Kakkar (Ione) all delivered thoughtful, nuanced performances that exhibited a keen understanding of the source material. Unfortunately Susannah Flood (Panthea) often relied on wide-eyed deliveries and broad dramatic gestures that brought unexpected (and decidedly unwelcome) comic elements to some of Panthea’s most serious lines; her speech in IV. 270-318, for example, was inexplicably farcical and greeted with laughter by much of the audience. The ensemble of Adam Green, Tom Nelis, Angel Desai, Miriam Silverman, Tommy Schrider, Grant Chapman, and Amelia Pedlow each did double, triple, and even quadruple duties as the various choruses of Sprits, Furies, and Hours who recited their lines from the theater’s aisles. During the Q&A, Baldwin expressed some doubts about this technique, but it was, for this viewer, one of his most effective directorial choices, along with his decision to break up some of the longer lyrics (especially in Act IV) among more of the speakers. The experience of hearing the choruses and semichoruses chant their intermingled lines from either side of the theater was both appropriate to the musicality of the source text and a canny solution to the limitations of a reading, as opposed to a full staging. It was also a delightful sensory experience, and it felt like a decision Shelley himself would have endorsed.
Much of the post-show Q&A revolved around issues of the project’s conception, execution, and methodology, and NYURRG’s blog (http://nyurrg.org) also offers fascinating insights into these questions. There the organizers argue for staged readings as the “ideal medium” for Romantic works like Prometheus Unbound that can be collected under Byron’s category of “mental theater.” Shelley’s lyrical drama does have many qualities that make it well suited to this sort of theatrical treatment, including the frequent descriptive passages that can replace the functions of scenery and costume and guide viewers through visualizations of the settings and action. During the Q&A Thompson, a seasoned classical and Shakespearean actor, claimed that Prometheus Unbound was “the hardest thing [he’s] ever done” and offered some interesting comparisons between “active” Elizabethan versus “dense” Shelleyan language which is, he claimed, “a different kind of drama […] a buildup of images and words.” Baldwin noted that the idea of Prometheus Unbound and other Romantic mental theatricals as “unstageable” now seems outdated to contemporary audiences accustomed to avant-garde theater and performances that defy traditional expectations of pacing, action, and plot, but even Baldwin admitted to being somewhat stymied by the lack of action in the second half in which as, as he put it, “nothing happens” and the characters “just rejoice for two acts.” This apparent discomfort with how to address the second half of the play may have resulted in one of the few serious directorial missteps: having Prometheus and Asia return to the stage, arm-in-arm, for the end of Act IV. A common early-twentieth-century criticism of the dramatic structure of Prometheus Unbound was the absence of the ostensible protagonists in the final act, and the decision to have Prometheus and Asia on stage during Demogorgon’s closing speech felt like a concession to those very outdated expectations that Baldwin himself claimed to resist. Furthermore, this runs counter to Shelley’s very deliberate choice to remove these two figures from the action of Act IV and was thus a rare off note in an otherwise faithful rendition of the text.
Another potential misstep was the production’s use of music. Short pieces by Phillip Glass were played between the acts, and Baldwin claimed that the decision to use Glass was a nod to the precociously avant-garde nature of the text. But several critics (myself included) have noted the key role that music plays in Shelley’s specifically lyrical drama, so the decision, for example, to ignore Shelley’s explicit stage direction of “[Music]” at Act II.v.37 felt like a missed opportunity, given the limited number of choices available to the director of a reading. On the other hand, the music playing behind the final speech of the Spirit of the Hour at the end of Act III.iv, while not included in the text, did work, leading as it did into the famously musical Act IV (when some additional music would have also been appropriate).
One of the most interesting and perhaps telling moments in the production occurred after The Moon’s speech (“As a lover or a chameleon / Grows like what it looks upon…”) in Act IV.451-492. Adam Green’s reading was so engrossing that Myra Lucretia Taylor (The Earth) missed her cue, broke character, and exclaimed “you just took my breath away!” before returning to her lines. In the post-show Q&A she laughed about the stumble and her unconscious decision to “let the language wash over” her, but the same could be said of everyone in the audience; the opportunity to let Shelley’s words wash over us was a rare and unexpected delight.