"Fireplay: The Legend of Prometheus," a fanciful, English-speaking, Kabuki-style presentation of ancient Greek myths at Pomona's Garrison Theatre, is all about playing with fire. In style as well as content.
It was initiated by its director, Leonard Pronko, and its playwright, Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, as part of a plan by Pomona College's centennial commission to celebrate the Orozco Prometheus mural that adorns Pomona's Frary Dining Hall. From such humble beginnings--and in the right hands--emerge playful, inventive ideas.
It's hardly the first time that Pronko, the current Pomona College Theatre Department chair, who has become the most esteemed Western authority on Kabuki performance (and was so honored in 1986 with Japan's Order of the Sacred Treasure, Third Degree), has applied the broad, comic and grandly theatrical gesture of Kabuki to Western tales. Over the years he's given us, among other more traditional Kabuki-in-English projects, an "Iphigenia at Aulis" and a Kabuki Western.
As a graduate student specializing in Oriental theater and playwriting, Sorgenfrei (now an associate professor of theater, film and television at UCLA) had written a play called "Medea: A Noh Cycle." Other than serving as the perfect credential for "Fireplay," "Medea" had walked off with the 1974 American College Theatre Festival's original playwriting award.
Together, Pronko and Sorgenfrei (with a little help from their friends) have now delivered in "Fireplay" a student production that takes selected liberties in the retelling of the Prometheus legend (why not? Myth itself presupposes departures from fact), marked by abundant wit (much of it tongue-in-cheek) and drawing strength from a deliberately archaic, often bombastic and self-mocking text, in keeping with Kabuki's grand manner. Only once does it stray into taking itself too seriously and fall into the trap of stating the obvious, but it's a relatively minor and easily excisable transgression.
Pronko/Sorgenfrei offer us ancient fable as modern parable. An arrogant Prometheus (Christopher Jaworski), with an unquenchable thirst for power, models his behavior along the perilous lines of an Olympian Coriolanus. He defies his all-powerful rival Zeus (Matt Ford); embraces, then rejects the Earth Mother Gaia (forcefully etched by Sarah Norman), and unwisely vies with her and Zeus for possession of the mortal Io (Lynda Mahmarian)--whom nobody really gets in the end, when Zeus turns her into a cow.
For comic subtext we have Prometheus' brother Epimetheus (Mark Christiansen), the fool with all the funny lines. He's the one who's given Pandora to wed and her calamitous box for a dowry (a crate marked here, "To: Mankind, From: the Gods, Contents: GIFTS") releasing all the unnecessary evils.
Pronko injects wonderful visual and humorous touches, with gadflies flitting around on the ends of slender, willowy poles, besieging the poor Io (now a cow with an Equus-trian cow-head). He provides a monkey who acquires a tail from the benevolent Epimetheus, and a delicious pussycat of a lion, who gains ferocity with the literal addition of teeth, claws and a roar.
The play turns darker once the inflamed Prometheus descends into the bowels of the earth to seize the sacred fire of the gods, exacerbating the already angry Zeus into fury, refusing to concede an inch--and we all know how that turns out. Pronko saves some of his best effects for last: Gaia ensnared by strands of confetti; Prometheus in a final losing battle against soldiers armed first with poles, then with ropes. Some exquisite classic Kabuki stuff here, effectively if not perfectly realized by the young company.
Once man possesses fire, of course, he can cook and warm himself--or he can self-destruct. The mushroom image at the end of "Fireplay" and words like "the stench of burning flesh . . . the earth heaves like ocean waves . . . I see the lucky dead . . . " or the final quote from Shelley's "Prometheus Bound" ("I am become death, the shatterer of the world") would have been sufficient to send us the requisite message. To spell out "Hiroshima/Nagasaki" in breathy self-important death rattles is, no pun intended, overkill.
Otherwise, "Fireplay" is grandly entertaining, visually seductive, enhanced by John Weygant's decidedly Western atmospheric lighting and toylike revolving sets, adorned by Sherry Linnell's imaginative derivations of Westernized Kabuki costumes, spoofed by Maria Guttierez's simplified Kabuki makeup that contrasts eclectically with her made-by-Mattel wigs. Above all, it is everywhere emblazoned with Pronko's trademarks: a delectable, humorous, intricate and ritualistically horrific bit of informed whimsy--artistically and educationally, several cuts above most college theater.
Performances at the Garrison Theatre on the Pomona College campus (10th and Dartmouth streets in Pomona) run tonight and Thursday through next Saturday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $2-$5; (714) 626-7530.