nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
April 21, 2012
In 1952 Jonas Salk developed the first effective vaccine for polio but he didn’t sell it to the highest bidder; instead he gave it away for the betterment of humankind. Today some may find it hard to believe that a person would give up an opportunity to make millions of dollars by giving away the cure for cancer. Indeed, our bodies have become a commodity that can be exploited in ways that we most likely don’t even know about. Playwright and puppeteer Theodora Skipitares sheds some light on what medical science has been up to lately and juxtaposes that with Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.
Why Prometheus Bound? Perhaps because after giving us fire, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a mountain where an eagle ate his liver only to have it regenerate the next day—and science today is trying to regenerate limbs and organs using stem cells and other methods. Or perhaps because in Aeschylus’ take on the myth, Prometheus reveals that he not only gave us fire but science and medicine among other civilizing arts. So it makes a good amount of sense to connect the two and I think this sort of connection is what is so unique and enlightening about Skipitares’ work.
She takes moments from the play and thoughtfully compares them to the work of researchers such as Doris Taylor, who has been working with cadaver hearts in attempts to make them come back to life using stem cells. At least Taylor is using cadaver hearts. Not all the researchers Skipitares mentions are that ethical. Take William Beaumont who, after saving the life of Alexis St. Martin when he was shot in the belly, performed experiments on his open digestive system. Or the unfortunate man who had his oversized spleen removed only to find out that the doctor used it without his consent and when he tried to sue he discovered that he no longer had ownership of parts removed from his own body. “You can’t sell a person but you can sell the spare parts” Skipitares says. She also explores the potential impact of regenerating limbs lost by soldiers only to have them return to battle. Not all of these stories are about people; some involve animal experiments as such Dolly the cloned sheep. Overall the play and the stories from modern science make for good comparisons though they don’t entirely fit together and I found myself more interested in the science than the story of Prometheus.
Skipitares’ vision for a compelling show about medical ethics is stunning. I love the large scale puppets she employs. Together with puppet designer Jane Catherine Shaw, she creates many beautifully built puppets. There’s a liver with legs, a spider with a goat’s head and of course Dolly the cloned sheep whose adorable face wrenches your heart. One of my favorites was the St. Martin character who reveals many interesting things that are embedded in his costume. Skipitares cleverly uses a narrator to fill us in on some of the history of the science and scientists. Once again one the best components of this rich and dazzling show is the original music composed and performed live by the incomparable Sxip Shirey. Shirey uses an assortment of instruments and noisemakers including tap bells and marbles of various sizes that he spins around in bowls of various sizes to create a stirring score.
The ensemble of actors, singers and puppeteers is excellent and they move and work together with seamless precision. Jonathan Nosan plays a fabulous Prometheus and Allison Plamondon is alluring and memorable as Io. I also enjoyed Black-Eyed Susan’s soothing voice as the evening’s narrator. The singing voices of Eliza McKelway, Alice Tolan-Mee and Trevor Wilson are beautiful and work well to comfort the tortured Prometheus. The puppeteers all do amazing work breathing life into puppets that were often much larger than them.
Prometheus Within offers a lot to take in. You have the grand puppets, the extraordinary music and the solid performances, but I think what you’ll walk away with is the message of medical ethics, the arrogance of science and the issue of body ownership that Skipitares touts. It is presented in a manner that will certainly entertain but you’ll find also that it gets under your skin—and you may begin to more closely scrutinize those that literally want to get under your skin.